In July of 2017, the Bluetooth SIG released an independent extension of the Bluetooth Core Specification called Bluetooth Mesh. They claimed that the significant security updates, doubled throughput, and large expansion of existing solutions would make it ideal for industrial IoT solutions. With some estimates showing that global manufacturers will spend $70 billion annually on IoT solutions in 2021, could Bluetooth Mesh Networking become standard in industrial operations?
In this post, we’ll take a look to see if Bluetooth 5 + Mesh is an ideal solution for the many issues that the fragmented IoT wireless communication space is experiencing. But first, some background:
The Scoop On Bluetooth 5.0
As you probably know by now, Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard for sending data over short distances from connected devices. Invented by Dr. Jaap Haartsen while working at Ericsson in the 1990s, it’s most common uses have been for personal devices like headphones, computers, speakers, etc. It’s typical range is less than 33 feet but it can get up to around 330 feet.
There have been multiple versions of the Bluetooth Core Specification, the most recent being Bluetooth 5.0, which was unveiled in June 2016. This version focuses on features needed in IoT technologies, specifically improved speed, an increase in data broadcasting capacity, and increased packet lengths. The chart below shows some of the significant improvements from Bluetooth 4 to Bluetooth 5 including bluetooth transfer rates, range, and speed:
|Bluetooth Version||Range||Speed||Max Message Length||Data Transfer Rate||Max Output Power|
|4.0||200 ft (60 meters)||25 Mbit/s||31 bytes||1Mb/s||10dBm (10mW)|
|5.0||Up to 5000 ft (1.5km)||50 Mbit/s||255 bytes||2Mb/s||20dBm (100mW)|
What is Mesh Networking?
To understand the advantages of Bluetooth Mesh, you first need to understand what mesh networking is. As shown in the illustrations below, Bluetooth is what is referred to as a ‘star-type topology’. This means that all devices connect to one central hub rather than communicating directly with each other. The only way to expand the network of this topology is to connect more devices to the central hub.
With mesh networking, all of the devices in the network can communicate with each other, rather than having to connect with one central hub. This makes the size and area of the network virtually unlimited, which is why it is so useful for industrial IoT operations like large connected sensor networks.
Putting It All Together: Bluetooth 5 + Mesh Networking
As a founding member of the Bluetooth SIG and a leading supplier of low-power Bluetooth semiconductor solutions, Toshiba is excited and supportive of today’s Bluetooth mesh and recent Bluetooth 5 standards announcements and activities. Together, these standards significantly increase the range and robustness of Bluetooth, extending its use to many new consumer, industrial, energy, and commercial applications, while maintaining backwards compatibility to the billions of Bluetooth enabled phones, tablets, and PCs that are already in the market.
– Michael McDonald Vice President of Platform Enablement Group, Toshiba America Electronic Components, Inc.
Challenges to Implementation
So now that we’ve gone over Bluetooth 5 and Mesh Networking, it should be clear that putting the two together offers an impressive option for wireless communication in the Industrial IoT.
But what about the challenges of implementing this new specification? Well, for one, there’s still not a huge number of existing solutions on the market. For another, the lack of interoperability with existing systems could make it inconvenient to set up. Not to mention the technical barrier of entry due to the complexity of the protocol.
However, these problems will likely be solved in the upcoming years, as we’ll start to see more SDKs surface from silicon vendors, thereby increasing the number of devices that support bluetooth mesh. SiLabs, ST, and Nordic currently provide full SDKs for implementing mesh networking, but only Nordic and SiLabs currently support the LE Coded PHY which is needed for long range communication. Many vendors are offering SoCs which support both 802.14.5 and Bluetooth 5, allowing manufacturers to bridge the gap between existing Zigbee, Thread, and 6LoWPAN solutions and Bluetooth devices.
The CC2640R2F from Texas Instruments can reach a LoS distance of 1.5km with Bluetooth 5 and the new LE Coded PHY, which provides 4 times the range of Bluetooth 4 by implementing Forward Error Correction (FEC). With a budget of 2Mb/s in close proximity, or 1Kb/s at ~1.5km, you have plenty headroom to find the best fit for your application. A mesh networking SDK for the CC2640R2F is in the works, but the release date is still TBD.
The Future of Industrial IoT?
In the past, fragmentation of communication protocols in the Industrial IoT space has been a major issue. There will likely always be some sort of divide, due to the vast differences between the various products used in industrial settings. But specifications like Bluetooth Mesh Networking could start to bridge the gap.
Since Mesh is compatible with Bluetooth 4 chips used in existing cell phones, the case for using it for monitoring and alerts is better than ever. Using secure mobile applications, workers can get notifications and monitor sensor networks across facilities without having to connect to the cloud, resulting in reduced cost and latency across the board. Additionally, as SoCs and mobile devices become more powerful, they are enabling more machine learning and edge computing capabilities. Having a way for these devices to securely communicate locally can offset the cost of cloud computing as projects scale.
All in all, Bluetooth Mesh is a strong candidate for Industrial IoT due to its interoperability with existing Bluetooth 4+ devices, strong security features, and support of thousands of nodes on a single network. Paired with the LE Coded PHY available from select chip vendors, it’s arguably the best solution for IoT applications with a high node count.
For an in depth technical overview of Bluetooth Mesh, including the latest security features, check out the out The Bluetooth Mesh Networking Series.
Companies supporting the launch of Bluetooth Mesh:
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