Bluetooth's range just widened, and IoT lighting companies are thrilled (UPDATED)

July 18, 2017
Some vendors think the brand new “Bluetooth mesh” standard will kick off a commercial smart lighting bonanza.

Some vendors think the brand new “Bluetooth mesh” standard will kick off a commercial smart lighting bonanza.

The organization that oversees Bluetooth wireless communication protocols at long last issued a standard today that extends Bluetooth's physical range, a move that could help open commercial and industrial market opportunities for Internet of Things (IoT) lighting.

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After at least two years of internal wrangling and difficult technology choices, the Kirkland, WA-based Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) ratified a means to mesh together Bluetooth beacons, allowing them to hand off instructions to each other. The move effectively boosts Bluetooth's reach far beyond the 30 ft that is typical for the Bluetooth that consumers commonly use to share things like audio files among smartphone, computers, tables, TVs, and other devices.

“We just completed a several-year effort of completing a set of specifications that define a standardized approach for creating true industrial-grade mesh networking solutions using Bluetooth technology,” Bluetooth SIG vice president of marketing Ken Kolderup said in a phone interview with LEDs Magazine. “Now there's a standard way that defines how mesh networking gets done on Bluetooth, so that all the vendors can now create interoperable solutions.”

The mesh standard applies across all possible commercial, industrial, and residential information technology uses. The lighting industry is one group in particular that is welcoming the move. As LEDs has been reporting for some time, mesh could help buoy IoT lighting, making it more likely that smart lights can cover large areas of retail stores, warehouse, commercial offices, and other locations. Smart lights can engage shoppers on retail floors, can track assets and inventory in shops and warehouses, can adjust building management systems or readjust their own light settings, can advise facility managers on how to reassign space, and support many other data-oriented processes.

Gooee is making a mesh of it at its St. Petersburg, FL test center, trialing different luminaires such as these from Koopman Interlight in Bluetooth mesh schemes. (Photo credit: Gooee.)

While other technologies such as ZigBee, Z-wave, visible light communication, and Power over Ethernet — to name just a few — can support those schemes, many lighting vendors have been counting on Bluetooth. Today's announcement, which Bluetooth SIG hinted at when it named a Philips manager to its board last week, is welcome news to them.

“We are extremely excited to see this happen,” Gooee chief technology officer and co-founder Simon Coombes told LEDs. “We've been waiting a long time.”

Gooee provides communication chips and sensors to luminaire makers including Aurora, Feilo Sylvania, and many others. It has been a leading advocate of IoT lighting. But for all of its technology trailblazing over the last three years, it and its OEM customers have so far failed to wrack up end-user deployments. One main reason is that it has built its technology around a Bluetooth mesh scheme. While it and its chip partner Nordic Semiconductor have worked out proprietary approaches, Gooee has been loath to push wide-scale deployment until a standard was ready.

“The lack of ratified mesh network has been a bottleneck for us,” said Coombes. “Our core offering has been utilizing mesh.”

The company now hopes to pick up its commercial pace and to refine its mesh technology to conform with the new standard. To that end, it operates a test center in St. Petersburg, FL, where vendors including Osram and Koopman Interlight, among others, have been trialing mesh. The center operates three different mesh networks, currently including 470 LED lights.

Gooee has also implemented a couple of small-scale, pre-standard Bluetooth mesh smart lighting networks at end-user sites. For example, the BMW customer experience test center in Munich, an Aurora-Gooee project which LEDs wrote about recently, relies on a mesh topology. The technology senses the presence of people approaching a car in a showroom environment, and can trigger actions such as creating an engine noise or setting off other things intended to engage the customers. Gooee has also implemented a small-scale mesh network in an industrial warehouse and is about to start on another, Coombes said.

Mesh is suitable for just about all of the applications that Gooee has been championing, in commercial, industrial, and retail environments. One practical limitation is that metal can interfere. Coombes described one implementation where the light fixtures sat next to iron girders, which Gooee overcame by adding an extra mesh pocket.

Lighting vendor Feilo Sylvania has also launched a few mesh installations. For example, it relies on mesh for its smart lighting deployment at the headquarters of Dutch standards body NEN, global director of strategy and new business development Bastiaan de Groot told LEDs. It is also utilizing Bluetooth mesh to change colors on cars in Mazda showrooms, and will soon deploy a mesh network at a site in France, he said. Feilo works with a number of technology partners through its new SylSmart smart lighting integration program.

De Groot cautioned that “it will probably take quite a while before the whole mesh standard is really released, is mature enough, and is implemented on enough chipsets.” Until then, he noted that Feilo and others will continue to deploy proprietary Bluetooth mesh. Nevertheless, he was encouraged by today's SIG announcement, noting that “with the Bluetooth mesh standard, we get more interoperability, so an integration with a local HVAC system, et cetera, will become more possible.”

LED driver, module, and light engine company Fulham also applauded the new standard.

“Fulham is excited to finally see a wireless, multi-vendor, interoperable standard for lighting controls and we believe Bluetooth mesh networking will greatly expand the size and functionality of the market,” said Fulham vice president of global marketing and business development Russ Sharer.

So what took so long?

“There was some real work to do; it's very demanding, especially for a commercial environment,” said Bluetooth SIG's Kolderup, who noted that it took time to work out details related to reliability, scalability, performance, latency, security, and other aspects. The SIG also performed extensive interoperability testing to assure the best chance of all Bluetooth devices — the SIG has 32,000 members — working together in any scenario. For example, “We need to make sure that a switch you buy today can work with a light bulb you buy from a vendor that may not even exist today, 20 years from now,” he noted.

And with 150 SIG members participating on the mesh job, differences of opinion also intervened. One of the choices centered on whether to use a “flood” approach to meshing — akin to shouting loud — or a “routing” approach, which is more like a series of whispers that works well in a wired environment. Eventually, “flood” won.

“As you might imagine there are many enthusiastic and charged discussions about this,” Kolderup said. “But at the end of the day, there's a process to work through those. Then everyone agrees, and kind of moves on.”

Which is exactly what the lighting industry hopes it can now do in the marketplace.

MARK HALPERis a contributing editor for LEDs Magazine, and an energy, technology, and business journalist ([email protected]).

*Updated July 18, 2017 at 11:55am for additional source comment.