How Does Your McDonald’s Burger Get To You?

Table service and McDonalds sound as though they should be mutually exclusive as a fundamental of the giant chain’s fast food business model, but in many restaurants there’s the option of keying in the number from a plastic beacon when you order, placing the beacon on the table, and waiting for a staff member to bring your food. How does the system work? [Whiterose Infosec] scored one of the beacons, and subjected it to a teardown and some probing.

The beacon in question has the look of being an older model judging by the 2009 date codes on its radio module and the evident corrosion on its battery terminals. Its Bluetooth 4 SoC is end-of-life, so it’s possible that this represents a previous version of the system. It has a few other hardware features, including a magnet and a sensor designed to power the board down when it is stacked upon another beacon.

Probing its various interfaces revealed nothing, as did connecting to the device via Bluetooth. However some further research as well as asking some McD’s employees revealed some of its secret. It does little more than advertise its MAC address, and an array of Bluetooth base stations in the restaurant use that to triangulate its approximate position.

If you’ve ever pondered how these beacons work while munching on your McFood, you might also like to read about McVulnerabilities elsewhere in the system.

32 thoughts on “How Does Your McDonald’s Burger Get To You?

  1. I installed these in 1 restaurant, never again. Thank god none of the tables were installed yet, so I didn’t have to calibrate the whole mess. The Neglectricians electrified the ceiling grid, guess how I found out. What fun.
    I suppose I cold have “scored” one, but I never wanted to see them again. The approximate triangulation goes well with the approximate accuracy of your order.

    1. “The approximate triangulation goes well with the approximate accuracy of your order.”
      Haha so true. This is not a politics blog but decades ago flipping burgers was a typical teenager summer job. Then later, it seemed pre-pandemic, a lot/most/all of the McDo employees were immigrant labor. I don’t know why it has swung back to high schoolers again but that change brought with it an approximate infinity increased chance of a really messed up order. As in- more things messed up than number of items in my order. It isn’t just one particular location either and not picking on the Golden Arches- most fast food places are like this now.

  2. Well nice to know COVID didn’t kill the dining-in experience. Plus with the requirement that one be using the McApp to get certain deals, one already has a “beacon”.

  3. My local McD is still primitive. When you order they give you a big plastic “tent” with a number on it tied to your order for you to carry off to wherever you want to sit and place on your table. Then the server wanders around the dining room with your food until they spot the right number.

      1. I did just that this morning. The nameplate inside reads “RadBeacon Locator Tent Model RBT-008”. But, I was right in that they don’t use them, at least not the technology aspect. I asked one of the crew kids if they had a gadget that led them to where the order was to go, and he said “No, we just look for the number that is on the grill slip”. It is a fairly small McD, the dining room can’t be over 2000 square feet so finding the table isn’t hard.

  4. I still find it quite amazing that this triangulation work with RF signals.
    I looked into it some years ago, but then it was far too expensive for hobby applications, though they claimed an accuracy of better then a cm (or was it a mm).

    On a side note, about the serving step:
    Suppose a restaurant has a big scara robot arm which is just below the ceiling. (High enough so no one can put their fingers in places they don’t belong.)
    The scara arm is a simple two joint type, and the Z movement is done with a small winch.
    This effectively creates a crane that can deliver the service trays over the heads of the people.

    If it only lowers trays above tables, then it knows it won’t attempt to put a tray on someone’s head, and a stain gauge can measure when the tray bumps into anything because the weight on the rope changes.

    This can of course be extend in several way’s. Fro example the arm can have multiple winches for quicker deliveries, and the rope can be replaced with a scissor mechanism so the tray’s can’t wobble.

    1. Can’t even imagine the ROI calculations for this concept, but gut feeling says you could probably hire quite a few minimum wage McImmigrants/McExcons/McMorons for less.
      Not even including service & maintenance costs. Or the eventual law-suit when the contraption inevitably kills some unsuspecting McCustomer due to neglecting said maintenance, leading to a catastrophic McMalfunction.

      1. People always forget to factor in the cost of maintenance. At any level.

        It’s for instance why the road network is state of the art, but the roads themselves are crumbling and full of potholes.

      1. Reminds me of the old Candid Camera skit,
        When the customer pulled the plate out of the enclosure, a string pulled the food off the plate back into the enclosure and the door snapped shut!

        “When you least expect it,
        You’re elected!”

  5. I remember when they used to be able to prepare the order in a couple of seconds while you were paying for it, then you would just take it. Now, not only is their food crappy, but you have to wait a long time for it. They did better before the technology.

    1. I feel like I don’t remember that; what I do remember is some fast food places had a bad reputation for giving you soggy fries and cold burgers because they prepared them too far in advance in order to hopefully hand one over right away like you describe.

      1. I never implied that the food there was ever good. Just that it was fast. But, I do remember always ordering non-standard (i.e. “grilled”) burgers, because I didn’t like their standard “configuration”, but also because that guarenteed that the burgers were freshly made. Even then, they were faster than now.

  6. The beacons look a bit different at my local McDs, and I noticed there were dozens of adhesive RFID tags stuck to the bottoms of each table. I figured that the RFID tags store a table ID, which is read and transmitted by the beacon to the kitchen. Didn’t do too much digging – maybe I’m wrong and the RFID tags are for other interesting purposes.

    1. That is to tell the staff what table the beacon is at – I don’t recall offhand if the table tent pings the RFID and then reports that table number in the Bluetooth beacon (most likely, as this is the least maintenance and leverages the BT radios on the existing WiFi infrastructure to receive the beacons), or if the antenna on the table is receiving the BLE beacon that is closest. Both approaches exist.

  7. I went to one a few months ago, here in the Netherlands. It was so weird. Not only was it really expensive, from what I was used to (spend sixty euro’s on two people, on a macdonalds next to a highway, over double what I’m used to paying at other fast food places), the ordering process was weird. You can’t order through a person anymore, you have to use a screen instead. And then when you order, you get a number and have to wait until you can pick it up. I can’t remember ever seeing the system in the article in any macdonalds, but it’s fairly common in other fast food places here, mostly small local versions.

    1. I wonder where you went, cause the ones I occasionally frequent are ‘normal’.you can still order by a human if you really want to, its just easier to use the giant tablwt. Also I spe t just 26€ ish for a double and a single quarter pounder, those new mcshake fries and two milkshakes and a 9pice order of chicken nuggets. While still pricey for what it is its more then going to an actual restaurant, where you end up at 70€ minimum now a days.

      The wait time is longer though, but I think they are advertising that too. Freshly prepared while you wait.

      Its not the greatest food, but its not that bad to be fair.

  8. I kinda liked the kitchen train to table service we had for years at a Pizza King. Clear covered path with doors at tables and only your door unlocked when order arrives. No whistle sound FX but would have been fun.

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