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Smart lighting Bluetooth Mesh

Nov. 26, 2020

Smart lighting Bluetooth Mesh

Smart lighting might be the biggest revolution the lighting industry has seen in decades, but the multitude of available wireless communication technologies can cause a real headache for manufacturers willing to delve into this new, exciting market. Bluetooth is the latest talk of the town with its mesh networking support to be adopted later this year. We at Tiosl have been deeply involved in the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group's efforts aimed at standardizing a Bluetooth-based mesh architecture, and this examination of the basic concepts behind one approach to a Bluetooth Mesh implementation will give you an idea as to what Bluetooth Smart mesh networking is all about.

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Lighting standards we've all known for years are now being challenged by the next generation of lighting systems that promise to deliver so much more than just a well-lit space. The transition toward digital lighting is happening right in front of our eyes, and while a couple of months ago many had doubts as to whether smart lighting could be a real deal, it now seems that there is no turning back. Over the last 12 months, we've seen multiple heavyweight lighting manufacturers spinning off big chunks of their traditional businesses to put more focus on connected technologies. Smart lighting promises new business models with a steady stream of revenue from value-added features and services, which is exactly what lighting companies need to overcome the challenges resulting from the impressive longevity of LEDs and razor-thin margins in the LED market.

It is therefore not surprising that virtually every week we are hearing news about lighting manufacturers entering into agreements with companies that can relatively swiftly implement smart technologies into their products, or even straightforwardly acquiring providers of wireless connectivity, cloud services, or advanced data analytics. Things have gone so far that we've already seen Goldman Sachs downgrading its rating on one of the leading lighting manufacturers, citing concerns over the company's deteriorating earnings and emphasizing its low exposure to connected technologies. The trend is clear: Lighting systems are becoming digital.

That said, there is still no consensus regarding the wireless communication protocol that could be the go-to technology for lighting applications, let alone the entire Internet of Things (IoT). Countless times has it been said that the lack of interoperability is a major obstacle to mass adoption of connected solutions, but instead of some sort of standardization, we're only seeing things getting more and more fragmented. New technologies keep emerging, each claiming to have exactly what it takes to enable seamless, robust, and secure connectivity in the Internet of Things (IoT).

In the meantime, the more mature communication standards keep evolving to address the dynamically changing customer needs, as many of them were introduced to the market when expectations and hype surrounding the IoT and connected spaces were nowhere near as big as they are today. What's more, certain product categories did not even exist back then, with smart lighting being a perfect example of a segment that has come a long way from nonexistence to being one of the hottest smart building automation segments over just a couple of years.

One of those mature standards is Bluetooth, a wireless communication protocol that seems to have been around forever and thus enjoys unmatched brand recognition. However, for certain very specific reasons, it is currently not being considered a viable option for advanced building automation solutions. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a 28,000-member strong body that oversees the development of Bluetooth standards, claims this is about to change once the mesh networking support is introduced into the protocol's core specification. We are only a couple of months away from this release, so let's see what's coming.

Bluetooth Classic versus Bluetooth Smart

All that noise surrounding Bluetooth might be somewhat confusing for those not too familiar with the recent developments in the wireless communication landscape. After all, the protocol was first developed before the term "Internet of Things" was even coined. But what many are still not aware of is that the Bluetooth of today is something completely different than Bluetooth of the past.

The original Bluetooth, known as Bluetooth Classic, was designed as a short-range, cable-replacement technology for point-to point communications. Initially, the main goal was to synchronize data between mobile phones, but the standard quickly became the default technology for wireless data exchange between personal computing equipment (mobile phones, PCs, PDAs) and peripherals (headsets, cordless keyboards and mice, printers, and such). Devices could form a tiny personal area network (PAN) called a piconet, whereby a single central device would coordinate the activity of up to seven active peripherals.

Fast-forward to 2010, the Bluetooth Core Specification version 4.0 is released, introducing Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), more commonly known as Bluetooth Smart. This is where the story of Bluetooth in the IoT really begins. Bluetooth Smart was designed specifically to address the needs of a new generation of smart devices, many of which are battery-powered and therefore require fast connection times and efficient power management to reduce unnecessary energy consumption.

The new specification extended Bluetooth's usefulness to a whole new range of products, ultimately making it a default technology for all kinds of wearable devices. But despite some really outstanding features of the Bluetooth Smart radio, the protocol didn't make any significant impact in the building automation segment. Smart homes were dominated by other low-power technologies, mainly ZigBee and Z-Wave, and wireless communication never really took off in commercial spaces. Due to certain important drawbacks of the available low-power communication standards, building managers preferred to stick to wired solutions, considering them way more reliable.

The reason why Bluetooth Smart was never considered a serious contender for building automation purposes is that it was designed to support relatively simple hub-and-spoke networks (Fig. 2). Applications like smart lighting require much more than that. Peer-to-peer communication and extended range are among the must-have features enabling a robust network consisting of multiple smart bulbs, and the core specification of Bluetooth Smart simply didn't provide such capability. Its hub-and-spoke model couldn't match with the mesh topology of ZigBee or Z-Wave networks, and for this reason, Bluetooth could never really compete with the two in the applications they were intended for.

Is this meshable?

Even though the support for mesh networking wasn't included in the core specification of Bluetooth Smart, several companies noticed that building a mesh network based on this particular communication standard might not be such a bad idea. In 2014, Silvair (operating as Seed Labs back then) started building a mesh architecture based on Bluetooth Smart. Transforming the protocol's single-hop topology into a robust multi-hop, the peer-to-peer network was quite a challenge, but the potential reward was enormous.

A mesh network based on Bluetooth Smart also turned out to offer outstanding performance and the core features of the Bluetooth radio allowed us to overcome many of the challenges that other communication protocols have a hard time dealing with. Obviously, the technology developed by Tiosl was proprietary, although we did manage to maintain compliance with Bluetooth Smart's core specification.

Having received a fair amount of input from Tiosl and other companies working on their proprietary mesh solutions, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group realized that such an opportunity cannot be wasted. In February 2015, it announced the formation of the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group. Its goal was to standardize mesh networking support and incorporate it into the protocol's core specification. Competing companies sat down to share their experiences and find the best way to implement the mesh architecture into Bluetooth Smart. Near the end of 2015, the SIG officially confirmed that it's on track with the development of the Bluetooth Mesh and that the standard would be adopted at some point in 2016. Moreover, some major improvements with regard to both the data rate and range of Bluetooth Smart will be included in the new standard.

The standardized mesh architecture based on Bluetooth Smart is shaping up to be a powerful framework enabling robust and scalable implementations in some of the most challenging applications. Being part of that development process and seeing many of our concepts being incorporated into the global standard is a great feeling. We are currently among the leading contributors to the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group. The details about the upcoming mesh standard remain strictly confidential until some official announcements are made by the SIG itself, but we can provide you with a sneak peek into the basic concepts behind our Tiosl Mesh technology, which might give you a good idea of what Bluetooth-based mesh networking is all about.



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