The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about connecting devices in a way that allows data to be collected and acted upon, with some level of intelligence. The smart home is all about connecting everyday devices in the home into a network that can then be easily monitored and managed. Hence the IoT is a fundamental part of the smart home network, connecting devices, monitoring appliances and home data, and taking some action to make the user more comfortable, provide convenience or save costs.
To connect everyday devices into a network, there are several different communications networks, including Bluetooth, ZigBee, 6LoWPAN/Thread, and HomeKit. Of these, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) mesh networking is increasingly being considered as an alternative or complement to other established home networking standards such as ZigBee.
Historically, ZigBee has been around for over 10 years for low-power wireless network applications, while Bluetooth has traditionally only been used for short-range, low-power device-to-device communications. Bluetooth couldn’t provide wider network connectivity, but that’s changing as the Bluetooth SIG announced an architecture for standardized mesh networking capability for Bluetooth Smart technology not long ago.
BLE mesh networking still needs to be standardized, but it’s already being deployed in some applications, like GE’s connected lighting products. By utilizing this new mesh networking capability, individual Bluetooth devices can connect to other devices in networks, enabling coverage of an entire building or home, making it ideal for home and industrial automation applications.
What makes the smart home network even more possible with the emergence of BLE mesh networks is that Bluetooth is already embedded into many consumer electronics products, particularly smartphones, tablets, and laptops. So not only can Bluetooth sensors be deployed widely in the home, but the management and control of devices is also made easier since an app or software can easily be developed on the smartphone or laptop.
This opens up a whole opportunity for Bluetooth in smart locks, lights, HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems, and many appliances, which can form a network to deliver a seamless smart-home experience.
From a system control point of view, ubiquitous BLE support in mobile devices means an extra remote control isn’t necessary and users can experience things like smart lighting immediately using a mobile app and connected lightbulbs. System implementation is also simplified since no gateway or router is needed if no long distance offsite control is required.
The removal of a gateway also avoids degradation of the user experience caused by indirect user interactions, and also possible complexity challenges to ordinary users to install and setup the gateway. This saves considerable cost and also eases the deployment process.
In terms of implementing this capability at a chip level, a highly integrated system-on-chip (SoC) like the TLSR8263 from Telink Semiconductor means fewer off-chip components and a low bill of materials (BOM). Also, BLE mesh firmware requires less SRAM and program memory than some other technologies. All these result in a significant overall BOM saving for smart devices adopting a specific solution such as this for a BLE mesh.
The high level of integration and small firmware requirements help drive down the cost of BLE mesh-based solutions significantly. For example, the CbyGE light-bulb sets based on a BLE mesh (four LED bulbs with a free iPhone app) cost around $50, which is significantly lower compared to other available smart lighting solutions.
From an end-user standpoint, this low price threshold is significant in creating user adoption. In addition, in the connected light-bulb application, Telink’s BLE mesh technology has been able to demonstrate support for a large number of nodes even without a gateway or hub. Companies have been able to simply use a cell phone app or a remote control to reliably control over 1000 smart LED bulbs at the same time. The technology being mature and low cost make BLE mesh suitable for many IoT applications.
Some challenges still remain for BLE mesh. The standard is yet to be published and currently, only a few vendors have it available in the market, among them even fewer with stable solutions available at the commercial level. Since it’s new, some manufacturers are still sceptical and are cautious in picking up the new technology, with the lack of interoperability being a major concern.
There are still a lot of components to be added into the BLE mesh mix, such as more advanced cloud integration/interaction and the optional remote accessible gateways. What’s clear, though, is that BLE mesh network technology will continue to evolve and emerge, and become a more integral part of smart home networks as it becomes standardized, deployments increase, and costs are driven even further downwards.
Dr. Wenjun Sheng is the CEO of Telink Semiconductor, a provider of low-power wireless connectivity ICs and solutions for the Internet of Things. Dr. Sheng has over 15 years of semiconductor industry experience, holds 30 patents in RF and mixed-signal IC design, and is a member of China’s top recruitment program of global experts, “Thousand Talents Program.” Dr. Sheng holds a BS in electronics engineering from Tsinghua University and an ME and Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Texas A&M.