What is a Beacon?

S. Zaimov

A beacon is a type of device that draws attention to itself by emitting light or electric signals. It is often installed at places where visibility may be limited, such as airports or at sea. It can have different applications, but is most commonly used to warn of danger or signify an alarm.

A lighthouse with a beacon.
A lighthouse with a beacon.

Historically, beacons have been used for a very long time. Some of the first beacons were fires that were lit and scattered through forts and posts on mountain ranges. In many towns and villages, they were used to warn of incoming enemy attacks. At night these flames were easily spotted, while during the day the smoke from them was more visible. Beacons were also utilized to send coded messages through chain systems, where they were aligned in rows stretching long distances and lit one by one.

An aircraft's instrument landing system can tell pilots how close they are to radio navigation beacons on the ground.
An aircraft's instrument landing system can tell pilots how close they are to radio navigation beacons on the ground.

Today, aerodrome beacons are used at airports, and are often stationed above the control tower. These lights help airplanes find the airfield at night or during stormy weather. Many beacons use different color combinations to transmit messages to the pilots. They can also change their rate of flashing to warn of possible danger.

Another common and well known type of beacon is used at lighthouses. These buildings have been employed for centuries to aid marine navigation. They are often tall and send out bright beam of light, generated by a huge lamp at the very top of the tower. A lighthouse beacon not only helps sailors find destinations, but can also be used to mark dangerous spots covered by water, such as reefs and shallow water. In the past, many of these towers required a person inside to operate the beacon, but most today are automated.

Electric radio beacons are a different type of beacon that emits radio waves to signify location. Distress beacons like this can be sent out by ships and airplanes to call for help. They generally work on the same principle as light beacons, but send out invisible signals that can only be detected by another radio that is tuned to the right frequency or station. One of the main advantages of this type is that they can reach great distances.

While most beacons are used as alarms, they can also mark special occasions and events. For instance, light beacons can be lit on certain holidays, such as New Year's Day, to acknowledge the celebration. They can also be used to signify the beginning of a month or the start of a season.

Beacons can help pilots identify an airfield, especially at night.
Beacons can help pilots identify an airfield, especially at night.

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Discussion Comments


@Izzy78 - When it all comes down to it a beacon is simply a point of reference for people to use to safely land at their destination.

In terrible weather the simple things become hard to do and when you add travel into the equation it creates a potentially dangerous situation. By simply adding a flashing point of reference for boats or airplanes to use it tremendously helps in safely guiding people to their destinations.

I have heard instances of emergency landings being forced to happen and bon fires have been created to be used as a point of reference for planes to safely land. Simple acts such as this can go a long way in helping people reach their destination safely and preventing disasters from happening.


I remember seeing the movie Die Hard 2 and the entire premise of the movie was that the weather was so bad that after terrorists took control of air traffic control they shut off the lights on the runways and it forced the planes to simply circle the airport until the cavalry arrived.

This movie showed how much in bad weather and at night that pilots rely on beacons in order to safely land. Eventually they were able to start a fire on the runway and this simply allowed the pilots to have a point of reference and be able to safely land their planes.


@kentuckycat - The same thing can also be said for airplanes. If a boat were to crash into something they still have a chance of getting off before it sinks. If a plane were to crash everyone on board is a goner.

When there is terrible weather beacons become a guiding light to safety in order for pilots to land the plane.

For anyone that has ever flown a plane they would know how easy it is to lose sense of direction especially in poor weather and that is why beacons and guiding lights are very important in order to land safely.


Beacons are very important in order to safely guide sailors to the shore. A lot of the time it is very difficult for a sailor to see at night and know what is a safe and unsafe area. In fog it is nearly impossible to distinguish safe areas and sometimes even where land is. Because beacons are in essence flashing lights they can be seen through the fog or bad weather and can be used as a guide to follow safely to the shore.

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