Bluetooth's role in the Internet of Things
Written by: Vaughan O’Grady | Published:

Low energy versions of Bluetooth promise vastly expanded applications at lower cost. Various sectors could benefit from the better tracking of assets and people such technology permits. But, asks Vaughan O’Grady, is that happening yet?

Once seen as a form of cable-replacing short-range audio connectivity (and still popular in that format) Bluetooth now has a second incarnation in a low energy version (BLE), which is setting the stage for Bluetooth as a key component in the Internet of Things (IoT). That, at least, is the opinion of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group – the body that oversees the development of Bluetooth standards.

The Low Energy version of Bluetooth allows developers to create smaller sensors, with very cheap chips, that can run off tiny batteries for long periods. This has changed and multiplied the applications of Bluetooth. It can now be used for exchanging data over distances up to hundreds of metres but at extremely low power, so that sensors can remain in place for months – possibly years – without needing new power sources. The potential Bluetooth holds for business uses is already being explored.

This isn’t a new idea. Martin Woolley, technical program manager of the Bluetooth SIG, says: “Behind the scenes people had been working on it and thinking about those scenarios for some time. There was always a strong vision of Bluetooth Low Energy for the Internet of Things, the smart home and those kind of ideas, which are becoming much more mainstream now. The two [Bluetooth and IoT] have informed each other.”

Between them Bluetooth Low Energy and the IoT could inspire a lot of new applications. For instance, you could put cheap, power- efficient sensors all over a house and gain very rich data with which to improve security, heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning. That is, if you can convince homeowners they need it.

More likely and much sooner, says Nick Hunn, Cambridge Wireless connected devices SIG co-champion and CTO at wireless consultancy WiFore Consulting, is a market opportunity in facilities management for offices and hotels. “Hotels are driving this quite a lot in terms of getting more information on what’s happening in rooms; turning lights off, setting aircons, seeing who goes in and out through the door locks. Wi-Fi may provide the infrastructure to connect the gateways but the gateways can also talk directly to those Bluetooth sensors.”

Bluetooth Low Energy-based location sensing in particular is going to be central to a lot of new applications. But it’s early days yet. Woolley explains: “iBeacon came out as – essentially – phase one of indoor location using Bluetooth; the first incarnation of some basic ideas to allow positions to be determined indoors.” Increasingly applications are being found in places like retail outlets, airports, museums and art galleries. He continues: “Phase two could be Google’s Eddystone... a more browser-based approach to location,” which would mean that people “don’t have to install special applications to work with beacons”. Phase three, where asset tracking and warehouse efficiencies are enabled, is on the way Woolley assures us.

Another imminent innovation, Bluetooth mesh networks, could increase range and remove barriers to communication in ways that also vastly expand applications.

Hunn explains: “If you want to extend range and cover a whole house or district the most efficient way of doing that is to have mesh so that you can start to relay messages around. If something gets blocked you’ve got redundancy; you can go through another route.”

Some commercial products are available now but a Bluetooth SIG industry standard for creating mesh networks on top of Bluetooth is coming.

“This is where we’ll get whole coverage of entire commercial buildings, airports, shopping malls. And then messages will relay across the mesh from device to device, making all sorts of things possible,” says Woolley. “It’s going to be quite a ground-changing release when that work completes this year.”

Such a spec could allow a very cheap, very power-efficient mesh lighting system, for example, with all the efficiencies that implies – but also much more than that. Woolley suggests a time when “all the light bulbs you’ve got have firmware running on them. They’re all upgradeable wirelessly. You can start adding other capabilities because you’ve got this mesh network that embraces the entire building.”

Based on the forward-looking nature of these comments you could be forgiven for assuming that very little of this is actually happening. However, a number of manufacturers are finding business cases in some interesting areas, some of which involve enterprises.

For example, Steven Brykman, senior mobile strategist with enterprise mobility specialist Propelics, says: “Currently we are working with an enterprise client in the apparel services industry to develop an app for its drivers. The application assists drivers with several processes, including maintenance, servicing, and invoicing, and integrates with SAP. They are using special rugged Android devices that connect to both barcode scanners and printers via Bluetooth. Instead of requiring multiple high-priced scanning devices, Bluetooth lets drivers service an account with efficient (and less expensive) ‘helper scanners’ that communicate on-site via Bluetooth. Bluetooth technology also enables users to wirelessly print directly from their mobile device.

As for future developments, he says: “We are already seeing the potential of leveraging Bluetooth technology in one of our own enterprise mobile products: SureAudit. Imagine if a wholesaler could audit inventory simply by passing that item with a mobile device. We aren’t far from this reality.”

Location and navigation are also strong themes. Julia Farina, senior product marketing manager with Aruba, a provider of next- generation networking solutions for enterprises, suggests: “Companies will continue to move to an all-wireless workplace, one that leaves static, port-based desks behind and embraces employees’ desire to work from anywhere using their mobile devices.” She continues: “Location-based services – and Bluetooth Low Energy specifically – are allowing companies to leverage location context to better engage with their staff within the office, as well as make it easier to navigate large corporate campuses and perform day-to-day tasks.”

And this isn’t simply conceptual. “Larger corporate campuses – including our own – rely on Bluetooth beacons and mobile apps to power indoor ‘blue dot’ navigation so employees can easily find offices and conference rooms from their smartphones instead of interrupting others,” says Farina. “We can also send location- based notifications such as a welcome message as you enter the building or an onsite event update.

“In terms of BLE-powered IoT we have software partners, such as Robin, that use our beacons and software to power automated conference room scheduling, based on workers’ real-time location,” she continues. “For example, you can walk into a conference room and the combined solution will automatically book it on your behalf so that others cannot double-book.”

She also notes that the healthcare sector is another area where interest in Bluetooth-based solutions is growing – for example to address the challenges of navigating massive hospital sites and keeping appointments on time.

However, deployments often aren’t a solo performance. The alliance of BLE, mainly with Wi-Fi but also often with NFC, cellular and fixed communications can be a powerful one. “If you go back 10 years there were a lot of people asking ‘which one’s going to win?’ Nowadays there’s acceptance that the solution you’re trying to design may involve four or five different wireless technologies,” says Hunn.

Using Bluetooth Low Energy to track medical equipment could reduce patient waiting times; Credit: iStock/Dominik Pabis

Take for example Awarepoint, whose integrated real-time location systems (RTLS), based on Bluetooth Low Energy and Wi-Fi are used by clients in healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and other industries.

Karl Riesen, Awarepoint’s director of business development, explains that smartphones and the applications they enable have influenced the direction of his company’s offerings. “We were at a point where traditional RTLS (being able to locate people and things within an enterprise) was starting to meet mobility.”

“If you need higher density you want that density to be of a cheaper component that doesn’t require power and Ethernet connectivity,” he continues. “Those are the huge advantages with Bluetooth. Wi-Fi is sort of the indoor LTE, and king for data connectivity. But if you just need data points to do location triangulation and you’re not transferring large amounts of data, BLE is very cost-effective.”

Healthcare dominates Awarepoint’s traditional RTLS markets. Riesen points out: “In healthcare you have hundreds of $20,000 items that are on wheels. If you can find such assets quickly, use them quickly, and not have any left over doing nothing you can reduce capital expenditure. That kind of concept applies to any market that uses high value mobile assets indoors.”

Locating patients and offering apps to guide them to an appointment is also useful, as is finding employees quickly when it’s a legal requirement that a clinician has two nurses present to sign off on administering certain medications. “Streamlining some of those work activities can definitely improve efficiency but also boost staff experience,” he says. “The secondary effect is that it improves the staff and patient interaction.”

For industries such as manufacturing, mining, oil and gas “safety and communications seem to be the top two for the people side of the equation,” Riesen adds. Thus, Bluetooth Low Energy beacons could be used when you want to be able to locate where someone is based on a mobile device. You then tell them where to go in an emergency. However, the BLE beacons that make up the fixed infrastructure for that locating technology could then be used for other things, such as monitoring tagged assets.

Of course, he points out, you’re not just adapting a new technology but “standards- based Bluetooth and Wi-Fi – two of the biggest standards in the world”. Standardisation is a key part of making services more suitable for multiple use cases.

But it’s not only about the possible uses of Bluetooth for controlling, monitoring and guiding. As Bernard Lee, director of product marketing at Awarepoint, says: “You have to keep in mind that in addition to beacons and tags there is the data analytics and reporting aspect. Data analysis of equipment and people can really improve efficiency, worker productivity and so on.”

This is also going to be fundamental to the IoT, although Riesen adds that “data has to be collected, communicated and analysed via common protocols and common techniques”. “Otherwise it’s too complicated to know what to do with. I think the concepts behind the IoT are going to shape the location market to force people in the right direction: which is standardised and adaptable technologies to meet disparate use cases.”

Although no one is quite sure how the IoT will work it’s clear that it’s not about single technologies. “You have to step back and think about architectures,” Woolley points out. “The first leg of communication would either be peer to-peer Bluetooth communication or increasingly it’ll be a mesh. And then at the end of the mesh you get connected to the internet and now you’re doing TCP/IP to other layers of that architecture. The IoT is potentially complicated and will have multiple technology ingredients. But Bluetooth will be one of them for the edge, I’m certain of that.”

Close to 29,000 Bluetooth SIG members seem to agree. Woolley quotes IHS research that suggests by 2025 nearly half of all IoT- connectable devices will be industrial devices. “There’s a clear trajectory and some very clear thinking and vision behind Bluetooth’s evolution that is really positioning it to be the low power wireless technology choice for the IoT,” he says.

We’re not yet at a point where the IoT, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, cellular and NFC can be mixed and matched across businesses of every stripe to produce efficiencies, reduce waste, and support the development of new products and services. But it will happen. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity are embedded in most phones, computers and tablets. Beacons are spreading Bluetooth across new environments. Not just mesh but greater Bluetooth range – quadruple the present few hundred metres – is coming soon. At the moment much of the focus is on finding things and people but myriad possibilities for use in offices, homes, public buildings and warehouses are real. They just need to be applied.

But how? “When we developed Bluetooth Low energy we tried to make it a lot easier to use and for people to experiment with,” says Hunn. “And the way that Apple has taken Bluetooth on and put it into the iOS has further enhanced that ability for people to play and do interesting stuff with it.

“I think that’s the key. Nobody really knows what the killer application is. There’s just going to be a host of little applications. The easier it is for people to generate those, the more of those little solutions you will get.

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