In the last few years, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has pushed hard to broaden the wireless technology standard, introducing elements such as mesh networking and lower energy usage, increasing the amount of data sent through broadcast packets, and boosting the location-finding ability of Bluetooth radios. The goal was to make the low-power, personal area network a little less personal and a little bit more ready for the enterprise or industrial world.
In the coming year, we’re going to see if the SIG’s efforts have panned out. Can Bluetooth, a radio technology that has long been used in smartphones and paired with multiple consumer devices, transcend its consumer past and replace proprietary or power-intensive enterprise and industrial wireless technology?
To understand how Bluetooth will become more than a personal area network it’s useful to think about the technology’s two primary functions. The first and most common function is where a phone is paired to another device and the radios send data from the phone to a pair of headphones or a speaker. Most devices we’re familiar with use this function — everything from wearables to our cars.
But Bluetooth has another function. It can broadcast packets of data that any other nearby Bluetooth radio can pick up and decipher so long as it has the proper software. The most popular iteration of this so far has been beacons. For example, museums use this technology to share data about particular paintings using a mobile app. The location-based services that the Bluetooth SIG announced last month use this technology, too.
These different faces of Bluetooth matter, because the broadcast function is going to pull more of the load in the enterprise and in industrial settings. That’s because it can scale. Generally speaking, pairing limits a network to about eight connections, while a broadcast signal can handle far more. Justin Rigling, the CTO at Bluetooth gateway vendor Rigado, says that in lab tests, his firm has managed to handle between 300 and 500 messages a second over a broadcast network.
This combination of broadcast functionality — which enables a user to transmit more data and a device to locate itself in a mesh network with an accuracy of a few centimeters — and the fact that Bluetooth radios are ubiquitous on phones (and are so cheap) has several companies betting that Bluetooth will gain ground over cellular networks and proprietary offerings from vendors pitching industry-specific solutions.
For example, inside hospitals, Bluetooth could be used to locate crash carts and IV stands, and to send and receive temperature data from medicine fridges. Historically, a hospital may have had to buy three different systems for each use case, but it’s possible that they could now be combined. As an added bonus, anyone with access to the app and the right permissions could see the data from their smartphone.
It sounds awesome, but there are several hitches. The first is that currently, Bluetooth isn’t easy to implement over a large area for an enterprise use case. Rigado and Cassia Networks are both trying to make it easier by building customized gateways that can handle a mesh of connected devices. So instead of figuring out the network parameters in architecture, a company could just buy these gateways to help create the right environment.
However, it’s still tough to build software that can handle broadcasting Bluetooth devices, and many companies do it for one particular industry focus. Rigling says Rigado is working on that, and the eventual plan is to offer everything from the app all the way down to the network. This is something that already we’re seeing on enterprise solutions built on other technologies from MyDevices and even Comcast’s MachineQ.
Rigado and Cassia aren’t the only companies pushing Bluetooth into the enterprise. So far, Rigado sees most of its demand in sensor networks for office buildings and location finding. Quuppa, another company that is taking the full-solution approach, is selling customers on location tracking. It makes Bluetooth-enabled tags that cost around $3 and can be placed on any number of devices that a company wants to track. Those tags, in combination with the Quuppa gateway and software, track devices in an indoor environment.
As Bluetooth becomes more prevalent in the enterprise and the industrial world, security will become the next big issue to solve. Bluetooth has security built into the standard, but it’s not exactly optimized for the types of industrial and enterprise use cases that companies such as Rigado and Quuppa are building. I’m sure the SIG will get on that.
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