Wifi / bluetooth RSSI signal strength to distance

Imagine you have a bluetooth device somewhere in your house, and you want to try to locate it.  You have several other devices in the house that can see it, and so you want to triangulate its position.

This article is about the result I achieved, and the methodology.

I spent two solid weeks working on this, and this was the result:

RSSI Location of a single bluetooth device

Estimating the most probable position of a bluetooth device, based on 7 strength readings.

We are seeing a map, overlaid in blue by the most likely position of a lost bluetooth device.

And a more advanced example, this time with many different devices, and a more advanced algorithm (discussed further below).

Note that some of the devices have very large uncertainties in their position.

Liklihood estimation of many devices

Estimating position of multiple bluetooth devices, based on RSSI strength.

And to tie it all together, a mobile app:

Find It App Screen


There are quite a few articles, video and books on estimating the distance of a bluetooth device (or wifi hub) based on knowing the RSSI signal strength readings.

But I couldn’t find any that gave the uncertainty of that estimation.

So here I derive it myself, using the Log-distance_path loss model

rssi = -10n \log_{10}(d) + A + Noise

In this model:

  •  rssi is the signal strength, measured in dB
  • n is a ‘path loss exponent’:
  • A is the rssi value at 1 meter away
  • Noise is Normally distributed, with mean 0 and variance σ²
  • d is our distance (above) or estimated distance (below)
Rearranging to get an estimated distance, we get:
d = 10^{\dfrac{A - rssi + Noise}{10n}}
Now Noise is sampled from a Normal distribution, with mean = 0 and variance = σ², so let’s write our estimated d as a random variable:
d \sim 10^{\dfrac{A - rssi + N(0,\sigma^2)}{10n}}
Important note: Note that random variable d is distributed as the probability of the rssi given the distance.  Not the probability of the distance given the rssi.  This is important, and it means that we need to at least renormalize the probabilities over all possible distances to make sure that they add up to 1.  See section at end for more details.
Adding a constant to a normal distribution just shifts the mean:
d \sim 10^{\dfrac{N(A - rssi,\sigma^2)}{10n}}
Now let’s have a bit of fun, by switching it to base e.  This isn’t actually necessary, but it makes it straightforward to match up with wikipedia’s formulas later, so:
d \sim e^{\dfrac{N(A - rssi,\sigma^2) \cdot \ln(10)}{10n}}
d \sim e^{N(A - rssi,\sigma^2)\cdot \ln(10)/10n}
d \sim \mathrm{Lognormal}(A - rssi,\sigma^2)^{\frac{\ln(10)}{10n}}
And we thus get our final result:
\boxed{d \sim \mathrm{Lognormal}((A - rssi)\cdot\ln(10)/(10n),\sigma^2\cdot\ln(10)^2/(10n)^2)}

Distance in meters against probability density, for an rssi value of -80, A=-30, n=3, sigma^2=40

Bayes Theorem

I mentioned earlier:

Important note: Note that random variable d is distributed as the probability of the rssi given the distance.  Not the probability of the distance given the rssi.  This is important, and it means that we need to at least renormalize the probabilities over all possible distances to make sure that they add up to 1.  See section at end for more details.

So using the above graph as an example, say that our measured RSSI was -80 and the probability density for d = 40 meters is 2%.

This means:

P(measured_rssi = -80|distance=40m) = 2%

But we actually want to know is:

P(distance=40m | measured_rssi=-80)

So we need to apply Bayes theorem:


So we have an update rule of:

P(distance=40m | measured_rssi=-80) = P(measured_rssi = -80|distance=40m) * P(distance=40m)

Where we initially say that all distances within an area are equally likely =  P(distance=40m) = 1/area

And we renormalize the probability to ensure that sum of probabilities over all distances = 1.



Laplace Transform – visualized

The Laplace Transform is a particular tool that is used in mathematics, science, engineering and so on.  There are many books, web pages, and so on about it.

My animations are now on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laplace_transform

And yet I cannot find a single decent visualization of it!  Not a single person that I can find appears to have tried to actually visualize what it is doing.  There are plenty of animations for the Fourier Transform like:


But nothing for Laplace Transform that I can find.

So, I will attempt to fill that gap.

What is the Laplace Transform?

It’s a way to represent a function that is 0 for time < 0 (typically) as a sum of many waves that look more like:


Graph of e^t cos(10t)

Note that what I just said isn’t entirely true, because there’s an imaginary component here too, and we’re actually integrating.  So take this as a crude idea just to get started, and let’s move onto the math to get a better idea:


The goal of this is to visualize how the Laplace Transform works:


To do this, we need to look at the definition of the inverse Laplace Transform:

\displaystyle f(t) = \mathscr{L}^{-1}\{F(s)\}=\frac{1}{2\pi j}\int^{c+j\infty}_{c-j\infty} F(s)e^{st}\mathrm{d}s

While pretty, it’s not so nice to work with, so let’s make the substitution:

\displaystyle s := c+jr

so that our new limits are just \infty to -\infty, and \mathrm{d}s/\mathrm{d}r = j giving:

\displaystyle f(t) = \mathscr{L}^{-1}\{F(s)\}=\frac{1}{2\pi j}\int^{\infty}_{-\infty} F(c+jr)e^{(c+jr)t}j\mathrm{d}r

\displaystyle = \frac{1}{2\pi}\int^{\infty}_{-\infty} F(c+jr)e^{(c+jr)t}\mathrm{d}r

Which we will now approximate as:

\displaystyle \approx \frac{1}{2\pi}\sum^{n}_{i=-n} F(c+jr_i)e^{(c+jr_i)t}\Delta r_i


The code turned out to be a bit too large for a blog post, so I’ve put it here:



Note: The graphs say “Next frequency to add: … where s = c+rj“, but really it should be “Next two frequencies to add: … where s = c\pm rj” since we are adding two frequencies at a time, in such a way that their imaginary parts cancel out, allowing us to keep everything real in the plots.  I fixed this comment in the code, but didn’t want to rerender all the videos.

A cubic polynomial:

A cosine wave:

Now a square wave.  This has infinities going to infinity, so it’s not technically possible to plot.  But I tried anyway, and it seems to visually work:


Gibbs Phenomenon

Note the overshoot ‘ringing’ at the corners in the square wave. This is the Gibbs phenomenon and occurs in Fourier Transforms as well. See that link for more information.


Now some that it absolutely can’t handle, like: \delta(t).  (A function that is 0 everywhere, except a sharp peak at exactly time = 0).  In the S domain, this is a constant, meaning that we never converge.  But visually it’s still cool.

Note that this never ‘settles down’ (converges) because the frequency is constantly increasing while the magnitude remains constant.

There is visual ‘aliasing’ (like how a wheel can appear to go backwards as its speed increases). This is not “real” – it is an artifact of trying to render high frequency waves. If we rendered (and played back) the video at a higher resolution, the effect would disappear.

At the very end, it appears as if the wave is just about to converge. This is not a coincidence and it isn’t real. It happens because the frequency of the waves becomes too high so that we just don’t see them, making the line appear to go smooth, when in reality the waves are just too close together to see.

The code is automatically calculating this point and setting our time step such that it only breaksdown at the very end of the video. If make the timestep smaller, this effect would disappear.

And a simple step function:

A sawtooth:

Erasing background from an image

I have two opaque images –  one with an object and a background, and another with just the background.  Like:

I want to subtract the background from the image so that the alpha blended result is visually identical, but the foreground is as transparent as possible.



Desired output (All images under Reuse With Modification license)

I’m sure that this must have been, but I couldn’t find a single correct way of doing this!

I asked a developer from the image editor gimp team, and they replied that the standard way is to create an alpha mask on the front image from the difference between the two images.  i.e. for each pixel in both layers, subtract the rgb values, average that difference between the three channels, and then use that as an alpha.

But this is clearly not correct.  Imagine the foreground has a green piece of semi-transparent glass against a red background.  Just using an alpha mask is clearly not going to subtract the background because you need to actually modify the rgb values in the top layer image to remove all the red.

So what is the correct solution?  Let’s do the calculations.

If we have a solution, the for a solid background with a semi-transparent foreground layer that is alpha blended on top, the final visual color is:

out_{rgb} = src_{rgb} * src_{alpha} + dst_{rgb} \cdot (1-src_{alpha})

We want the visual result to be the same, so we know the value of out_{rgb} – that’s our original foreground+background image.  And we know dst_{rgb} – that’s our background image.  We want to now create a new foreground image, src_{rgb}, with the maximum value of src_{alpha}.

So to restate this again – I want to know how to change the top layer src so that I can have the maximum possible alpha without changing the final visual image at all.  I.e. remove as much of the background as possible from our foreground+background image.

Note that we also have the constraint that for each color channel, that src_{rgb} \le 1 since each rgb pixel value is between 0 and 1.  So:

src_{alpha} \le (out_{rgb} - dst_{rgb})/(1-dst_{rgb})


src_{alpha} = Min((out_r - dst_r)/(1-dst_r), out_g - dst_g)/(1-dst_g), out_b - dst_b)/(1-dst_b))\\ src_{rgb} = (dst_{rgb} \cdot (1-src_{alpha}) - out_{rgb})/src_{alpha}


Add an option for the gimp eraser tool to ‘remove layers underneath’, which grabs the rgb value of the layer underneath and applies the formula using the alpha in the brush as a normal erasure would, but bounding the alpha to be no more than the equation above, and modifying the rgb values accordingly.


I showed this to the Gimp team, and they found a way to do this with the latest version in git.  Open the two images as layers.  For the top layer do: Layer->Transparency->Add Alpha Channel.  Select the Clone tool.  On the background layer, ctrl click anywhere to set the Clone source.  In the Clone tool options, choose Default and Color erase, and set alignment to Registered.  Make the size large, select the top layer again, and click on it to erase everything.

Result is:


When the background is a very different color, it works great – the sky was very nicely erased.  But when the colors are too similar, it goes completely wrong.

Overall..  a failure.  But interesting.