How Mesh Connectivity Will Make Buildings Brainier

Some of the “things” that make up the IoT are inside buildings, and making those things smarter has consequences for connected building automation.

The concept of the smart home has been around for many years. However, no single technology has really enabled the smart home yet. Now, with the pervasiveness of Bluetooth Smart we have a remote control in the hand of every smartphone owner and can finally make the smart home a reality.

How do we define ‘smart’? Smart things absorb information from other things, determine what that information means, and then act upon or transmit commands to other devices. Take a typical office building. It will have lots of meeting rooms. If you find an empty meeting room, how would you go about booking it? It could and should be as easy as walking into that room.

Figure 1. What if it were possible to call dibs on a meeting room in your office building just by entering the room? Image courtesy Robert Scoble [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Walking into the room should automatically turn on the lights and book the room for you. It should automatically notify people who may be looking for you where you’re located. It should automatically route important telephone calls to the phone in that room, and it shouldn’t require you to touch anything. You want that room to become yours.

To enable this, we need a way to communicate small amounts of information to a diverse set of devices. We need to allow users to build up the systems incrementally over time. They should be able to get comfortable with one aspect of the system, and then feel confident about adding another aspect. This allows us to build on the benefits of network effect.

Collision Course. Or Not.
Over the past decade a number of technologies have attempted to become the standard for smart home and connected building automation. ZigBee, Z-Wave and a number of more recent specifications from organizations such as Thread are competing to gain a foothold in the so-called ‘standards war.’ However, no single platform has been able to support mass adoption of a smart building solution.

In 2012, ABI Research predicted that Bluetooth Smart was on a “collision course” with ZigBee in the battleground for the connected home and only one year later published a report predicting that Bluetooth will surpass ZigBee’s market share by the end of 2015. This can largely be put down to two factors where Bluetooth has a distinct advantage over its competitors.

The first is low cost. Quite simply, for vendors to buy into a technology on a large scale they need the lowest cost way of delivering billions of sensors. Bluetooth Smart is not only less expensive per radio, but the cost of the sensors’ batteries has been massively reduced by the minimal power requirements and longer battery life.
The second advantage of Bluetooth Smart over its competitors is interoperability. Billions of consumers already own a device with inbuilt Bluetooth Smart connectivity, which translates into massive scalability for vendors. If we were to think of the ideal controller for a smart building, it would probably come in the form of a smartphone. According to IHS Research, more than 96% of Bluetooth-enabled smartphones will support Bluetooth Smart by 2018.

Where Mesh Enters
However, some applications such as lighting need coverage that can extend to the limits of an entire building. That’s where mesh-networking capability comes into play. Mesh allows Bluetooth Smart devices to not only receive and act upon messages, but also repeat those messages to surrounding devices, therefore extending the range of Bluetooth Smart for whole-building automation.

I have worked as Chair of the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group, which is dedicated towards building the architecture that will make mesh networking a standard capability on Bluetooth Smart technology. As of December 2014, the SIG introduced profiles that support IP connectivity for Bluetooth devices. The group expects to have the specification ready for prototype testing later in 2015, and the SIG will look to officially adopt profiles in 2016.

Why is mesh so important for smart buildings? Achieving the vision of a truly smart building is only possible using an ad-hoc mesh networking technology, without having a single gateway that could break, and without having an Internet connection that your IT people don’t want you to route things through. A Bluetooth mesh technology provides exactly this.

Initially developed to support wireless lighting control, the protocol supports models for additional applications and smart building scenarios. These include full home automation models enabling heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), as well as security and sensing that will be rolled out in the future.
The human brain has about one hundred billion nerve cells. That’s the same number of nerve cells as the trees in the Amazon forest. However, what makes you smart isn’t the number of cells, it’s the number of connections between them. On average, each cell has ten thousand connections—a number that is almost inconceivable. It’s those connections that make us smart. If we want buildings to be smart, we have to replicate that connectivity.

I believe that mesh connectivity will be the next big revolution coming out of the Bluetooth SIG. It is designed to be simple, robust and efficient. Once finalized, we will be able to firmware upgrade every mesh device that our customers have shipped to the adopted specifications. These developments will make Bluetooth Smart an even more compelling proposition for smart building implementations.

While the smart building has long been the promise of science fiction, it is now very real and easily achievable. With the technology now available, it’s high time to reap the rewards promised by Bluetooth Smart buildings using a smart mesh technology.

Heydon_headshotMr. Robin Heydon is a Global Standards Architect for CSR. Robin Heydon joined CSR in 2000 as a software engineer in the Bluetooth firmware group before moving into his current role as a Global Standards Architect. He has held the position of Chair of the Bluetooth Architecture Review Board (BARB) and the Chair of the Core Specification Working Group within the Bluetooth SIG. Robin is also a board member of the Weightless SIG. Robin regularly speaks at technical events around the world including the Wireless Developers Forums and the Bluetooth SIG Analyst meetings. Robin has an honours degree in Computer Science from Manchester University and has worked for a number of companies based in the UK, Canada and the USA, mainly in real-time simulation software and complex networking systems.

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