Another fine mesh: Bluetooth targets smart buildings with new specs

bluetooth mesh
Image credit: Bluetooth SIG

Bluetooth has just evolved from device-pairing to a smart-building enabler thanks to a new mesh networking capability optimized for creating large-scale device networks.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) says that the mesh feature is ideally suited for building automation, sensor networks and other IoT solutions where tens, hundreds, or thousands of devices need to communicate with one another.

The SIG is also touting the ability of the mesh specs to support industrial-grade IoT apps such as commercial buildings and factory automation, saying the technology is reliable, scalable and secure enough to meet the needs of Industry 4.0.

It also allows additional services to be added on top of the mesh network. So, for example, a Bluetooth mesh network deployed to run, say, a smart-lighting system could also be used for apps like asset tracking and way finding.

The other advantage of Bluetooth mesh, the SIG says, is the multi-vendor interoperability inherent in a mature ecosystem. From the press release:

“Multi-vendor interoperability is a major factor in determining how fast markets develop,” said Russ Sharer, VP Global Marketing and Business Development, Fulham.

SIG members such as ARM, Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies, Silicon Labs, Silvair and Toshiba have offered public support for the mesh specs on the SIG blog.

Andrew Zignani, senior analyst at ABI Research, commented that mesh networking is “a critical enabler” for Bluetooth’s transition from a personal area network and pairing technology towards a more scalable, robust, low-power IoT connectivity solution.

“Mesh network topology helps to overcome the obstacles and shortcomings of conventional hub-to-spoke technologies, including range limitations, limited network sizes, and unreliability, and can help to create more intelligent and reliable wireless sensor networks that span greater distances and cover a wider area,” he said. “Bluetooth mesh will therefore become increasingly vital to support, create, or enhance several use cases such as smart lighting control, building automation, sensorizing industrial production facilities, and potentially beacons in the future.”

Zignani added that mesh networking capability will open up new opportunities in areas not normally associated with Bluetooth and where competing wireless connectivity solutions “have already gained traction or have had comparative advantages.”

The SIG seems to be counting on it. “In the same way the connected device market experienced rapid growth after the introduction of Bluetooth Low Energy, we believe Bluetooth mesh networking can play a vital role in helping early stage markets, such as building automation and wireless sensor networks, experience more rapid growth, said SIG executive director Mark Powell in a statement.

The SIG says the mesh networking specifications are compatible with Bluetooth 4.0 and higher. However, that doesn’t mean that existing 4.0 devices will support mesh automatically, warns The Verge:

Bluetooth mesh can be added to any device that already supports Bluetooth 4.0 or 5.0, which is good because it means new hardware isn’t required, so a lot of devices can get support. But whether current devices receive it depends on if their manufacturers release an update.

Bluetooth SIG says that it usually expects to see new Bluetooth standards starting to enter the market about six months after they’re released. In this case, it expects Bluetooth mesh to show up even sooner, since new hardware isn’t required. So there’s a good chance your next Bluetooth device will support mesh, but there’s no guarantee your current ones will.

However, the article notes, the mesh specs also support a proxy function that would enable non-mesh devices to connect to the mesh network and control other mesh devices.

See also: this snappy video.

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