NXP Rolling Out Bluetooth Mesh Technology

The chip maker is the latest company to provide a means for controlling Bluetooth devices without having to rely on a hub-and-spoke communication architecture.
Published: April 22, 2015

Chip maker NXP Semiconductors announced last week that it is adding mesh capabilities to its portfolio of products compliant with the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) wireless standard. The company’s goal is to make products designed for connected-home applications more appealing to end users and device manufacturers. This means, for example, that light bulbs with NXP’s Bluetooth capabilities will be able to pass commands, coming from a controller (such as a smartphone or a smart home gateway device), from bulb to bulb, so that devices across an entire house can be adjusted even if they are outside that controller’s Bluetooth transmission range.

NXP, which demonstrated the mesh capability at last week’s Bluetooth World conference in Santa Clara, Calif., will have samples of the mesh-capable Bluetooth modules available in August, and expects to make them widely available to its manufacturing customers early next year. NXP purchased Quintec, a company that manufactures BLE devices (including wearables) last year. Quintec was in the process of developing a mesh capability for its Bluetooth products when the acquisition was made, NXP reports.

Asit Goel

“If you look at the IoT, there are building blocks,” says Asit Goel, the senior VP and general manager of NXP’s secure monitoring and control business line. “The biggest issue we see here is that there are a lot of technologies competing and coexisting today: ZigBee, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, etc. There is no winner-takes-all market. So, just like our microcontroller portfolio, we’re building a full connectivity portfolio, so our customers don’t have to make a bet on technology.”

Some of NXP’s customers that are developing products for smart-home electronics products, such as connected lighting or heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) products for residential use, have been watching and waiting to see which connectivity protocol emerges as the leader in the smart home space, Goel says. “We say you should not have to make that choice,” he states. “Our strategy is to be multi-protocol.”

What that means for manufacturers, Goel explains, is that they could add both ZigBee and Bluetooth mesh capabilities to their devices, or switch from a ZigBee-based product to one that employs NXP’s mesh Bluetooth module as it makes later versions of the device.

In a blog post on Electronic Engineering Journal, Byron Moyer posits that since Bluetooth technology is standard in smartphones—in which ZigBee is not used—Bluetooth, or perhaps Wi-Fi, may emerge as a preferred method for interacting with smart home devices.

Last year, electronics manufacturer CSR released a range of Bluetooth devices that enable mesh networking.

What is lacking, despite the growing interest in deploying Bluetooth devices in a mesh architecture, is a standard approach to doing so. But that is changing. Earlier this year, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (Bluetooth SIG), which develops interoperability standards and certifications for Bluetooth technology, formed the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group in order to begin standardizing a mesh networking protocol as part of the Bluetooth Smart (another name for Bluetooth Low Energy) standard.

“The [mesh] working group is very hot and is our second-highest number of people in a working group—with more than 100 members,” says Bluetooth SIG spokesperson Candice Eng, via e-mail. (The biggest working group is the SIG’s core spec working group.) According to Eng, the Smart Mesh Working Group plans to release its candidate mesh specification later this year, with a 2016 target for the finalized standard.

The Thread Protocol, a communication standard announced last year and developed by a group of companies including Nest, ARM and Samsung, already supports a mesh architecture for Bluetooth communications.

In addition to CSR, Zuli and Seed Labs, both makers of Bluetooth-based controllers for lighting and home appliances, have recently announced mesh capabilities, while lighting control platform provider Avi-on is partnering with CSR to integrate its Bluetooth mesh protocol into its offerings. Samsung announced a Bluetooth-mesh-controllable LED light bulb last year at the Lightfare International lighting trade show.

While NXP is targeting its mesh-capable Bluetooth chip to manufacturers in the home-automation space, members of the SIG’s Smart Mesh Working Group hail from other industries as well, including automotive and industrial automation. Aside from lighting, the SIG is eyeing HVAC control, asset tracking and security as specific applications that would benefit from a mesh protocol for controlling a large deployment of Bluetooth devices.