Products Released, Deployments Under Way With Bluetooth Mesh Spec

By Claire Swedberg

One year after the Bluetooth Special Interest Group released its mesh specification, companies ranging from lighting control firms to Chinese conglomerate Alibaba are selling products that are being deployed for building intelligence, with smart-home deployments under way this year.

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A year after releasing its Bluetooth mesh standard, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) reports that global smart-lighting solutions that will use the specification are being deployed now, with case studies expected to be released later this year. Development throughout the past year has led to the mesh capability being built into 68 products so far, including smart speakers and other devices, as well as lighting.

According to Ken Kolderup, SIG’s VP of marketing, wireless lighting-control solutions have passed through the development stage since last year’s release of the mesh standard, and are now being built into lighting-control products, as well as being installed in commercial buildings. The 68 products that have been developed with Bluetooth mesh-networking capability vary from silicon and stack products to components and end products such as lighting systems.

SIG is a nonprofit trade association working with member companies to add new capabilities to the Bluetooth standard and promote Bluetooth adoption. The group is 20 years old and has 33,000 member companies. Bluetooth is already ubiquitous in the phones and devices people use, according to SIG, with 10 million new Bluetooth-enabled devices shipped worldwide each day. That makes adoption one step shorter than for many other new technology standards, for which a new protocol must be introduced to existing devices.

Bluetooth mesh changes how existing Bluetooth technology is used, SIG reports, without requiring new Bluetooth chips in smartphones and other devices. With mesh networking, instead of pairing Bluetooth devices as the process for traditional Bluetooth connections, there is a provisioning step in which a smartphone, with the provisioning application, can be used to bring a new mesh-capable device (such as a light) into a mesh network by providing the necessary security keys. It then becomes a node within that network. Existing smartphones or tablets can also be part of the mesh network. For instance, a smartphone can be used to control devices on the network (see Bluetooth SIG Specification Enables BLE Mesh Networks).

Once the technology is in place for commercial lighting, Kolderup says, those Bluetooth nodes in light fixtures could be used for a host of other purposes, such as indoor positioning of employees or visitors, asset tracking of goods or movement of inventory, as well as wayfinding for visitors. Bluetooth mesh is intended to impact smart buildings, smart homes and smart lighting, as well as smart-industry and smart-city solutions. It has started, however, with lighting.

Commercial lighting systems are highly complex. There can be thousands of fixtures that are controlled with multiple instructions, such as dimming, and are being turned on or off from a variety of sensors. Bluetooth mesh is proving to operate well with this environment, Kolderup says. A message to switch a light on, for instance, can take multiple paths to each device, such as a lamp or fixture.

In a typical Bluetooth mesh deployment, a building would consist of group addresses for a specific room, for instance, that could be configured via an app. Those devices subscribe to each group address to listen for messages as they are sent over the secure network. Any number of devices can be added to a group address. A lighting controller, such as a light switch, sends instructions to these group addresses—anything from turning up the lighting in a meeting room based on occupancy, to lowering shades and dimming lights when sunlight shines in westerly facing windows in the company kitchen.

With a Bluetooth mesh deployment, nodes are often installed within light fixtures, and transmissions then hop across the network to a gateway device. The range can be up to 100 meters (328 feet) or more, at up to 127 hops. While the mesh development is initially focused on commercial and industrial lighting deployments, Kolderup says, the next phase is smart homes. “That market has already been under development for some time,” he adds, but many smart-home technologies consist of proprietary systems for lights, security or entertainment systems.

Smart speakers may lead the way for Bluetooth mesh in smart-home applications. Alibaba has been the first company that makes smart speakers to introduce mesh functionality in its products. In July 2017, the company announced that its Tmall Genie, similar to the Amazon Echo product, will now be able to transmit data to a mesh network. Alibaba is selling Bluetooth mesh chips to developers at a cost of $1 apiece, enabling them to begin developing the technology that might talk to the speaker. In that way, systems of the future could allow people to tell their smart speaker to lower the lighting in a specific room, check door locks and windows, turn on a fan or turn up the heat, all via a Bluetooth transmission.

Alibaba already sells devices that can be controlled in a smart-home environment. That, Kolderup says, “is a huge legitimizer for Bluetooth mesh.” Products already developed using Bluetooth mesh include BLE modules from Cypress Semiconductor, Bluetooth protocol stacks from Indian IT company MindTree Ltd., mesh-enabled luminaire mounts and photocells from Danlers Ltd. , and a smart clock from electronics company Xiaomi.

“We’ve been very, very happy with the adoption this year,” Kolderup states. Whereas most new specifications may require review by the silicon makers, then stack and module companies and finally end products, the Bluetooth mesh standard was able to move directly into stock and module development, since the Bluetooth ICs already exist. This, in turn, has led to faster deployments.