Replace Cable Applications in Industrial Automation with Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)



For long-term operation of Bluetooth devices in low-volume data transmission applications, BLE enables smaller form factors, better power optimization and usage of coin cell batteries that can support wireless operation for 12 months plus.

Automation is one of the fastest growing trends in industrial environments, with a key contributor to this sector being automatic identification & data capture (AIDC). AIDC refers to the methods of automatically identifying objects, collecting data about them and entering that data into computer systems with little or no human involvement. AIDC systems are used to manage inventory, security, delivery, resources and documents. With a CAGR of 12.29%, the AIDC market is projected to reach $17.8 billion by 2016. There are a number of different product sectors in the industrial segment of AIDC, but barcode scanners in particular are set to experience substantial growth. By 2018, the non-retail barcode scanner market will hit the $775 million mark. ABI Research forecasts that the cumulative global shipments of handheld and fixed/stationary barcode scanners will total 6.3 million units by 2018. What’s more, as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) continues to expand into new markets, it is expected to play a significant role in wireless enabled industrial automation.

What is BLE?

Present in nearly all new mobile phones and an ever-growing number of wireless devices, Bluetooth technology has become an exceptional short-range wireless performer for audio and data transmission. Bluetooth v4.0 introduces BLE, a new protocol that allows for long-term operation of Bluetooth devices in low-volume data transmission. BLE enables smaller form factors, better power optimization and usage of coin cell batteries that can support wireless operation for 12 months plus.

BLE connections are transient in nature. BLE works by sending small amounts of data every fraction of a second, once every few days or only when triggered by an event. While previous Bluetooth versions have required about 100 milliseconds (100 ms) to establish a connection, transmit data and terminate the connection, BLE devices can achieve the same results in circa 3 ms. As an extreme example, a device notifying state information once every five minutes would need the radio switched on for less than 1 second in total per day, leaving the radio off 99.999% of the time! By drastically reducing the time spent at peak power consumption, BLE devices can operate for significantly longer periods of time with the same total power usage.

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Figure 1: BLE technology is expanding into new markets

There are two device types in the Bluetooth v4.0 specification: dual-mode and single-mode. Dual-mode devices support both classic Bluetooth and BLE, while single-mode devices only support BLE. The two most common roles for BLE devices are central and peripheral. In BLE, the central role acts as a hub to one or more peripheral devices. Central devices are typically configured to acquire and use status data from a peripheral. Central devices may then display, re-route or store the gathered data from the peripheral device. Peripheral devices act as information gatherers that transmit their status to the central device—for peripheral mode devices think sensors—any simple, low-power device that needs to send a small piece of data about its status, an event or reading.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) has utilized a couple of new marketing terms for Bluetooth v4.0 devices: Bluetooth Smart Ready and Bluetooth Smart. Bluetooth Smart Ready devices are primary devices that typically have persistent Internet connections and robust power supplies such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. Bluetooth Smart devices, also known as BLE, are sensors or peripherals that connect to Bluetooth Smart Ready devices.

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Figure 2: Bluetooth Smart, Bluetooth Smart Ready and Classic Bluetooth

Additionally, Bluetooth Smart Ready devices are considered dual-mode devices because they can communicate with both BLE and classic Bluetooth devices. Bluetooth Smart devices are considered single-mode devices because they cannot communicate with classic Bluetooth devices.

Growth of BLE

BLE opens the door to new opportunities for developers and manufacturers of Bluetooth-enabled devices and applications, creating new areas of application for low-power wireless devices. The next few years will see an increase in Bluetooth Smart products and applications, which will stimulate the expansion of BLE devices into markets they currently do not serve. OEMs are especially excited to see BLE’s presence in the industrial market. As BLE positions itself to be a key technology in the wireless industrial arena, more and more companies are looking to add BLE to a wide array of industrial devices. According to a report by ABI Research titled, “Emerging Bluetooth Verticals,” cumulative shipments of BLE-enabled devices are forecast to exceed 20 billion devices by 2016 and 30 billion devices by 2018. Additionally, ABI estimates that in 2012 there was an installed base of 3.6 billion Bluetooth-enabled devices. By 2018 this is forecast to grow to almost 10 billion.

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Figure 3 Source: ABI Research, Bluetooth Service

Potential of BLE for Cable Replacement Solutions

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Figure 4: In order to speed industrial OEMs’ implementation of BLE into devices, Laird’s programming language smartBASIC enables standalone operation of the entire BLE engine of a device, enabling sensors to be attached to any supported hardware interface without the need for an external processor or burden to the host device.

Cable replacement solutions are increasingly filling an important niche in the industrial segment as they reduce physical implementation costs (labor and wiring runs), allow for simple legacy installations and reduce cable clutter and risks due to trailing cables in working environments. As the BLE movement continues to thrive, OEMs are looking to embed industrial devices like barcode scanners with BLE. Classic Bluetooth and 802.11 have increasingly found a popular home in industrial automation equipment and this trend is due to continue with the increasing implementations of BLE solutions. An Extension Media article states that more than half of all wireless-enabled industrial automation equipment shipped in 2012 used Bluetooth or wireless LAN (WLAN) technology. With their dominance of the market set to accelerate in coming years, Bluetooth and WLAN will be key for wireless-enabled industrial automation. Specifically, Bluetooth accounted for a 22 percent share of shipments of wireless-enabled industrial automation equipment in 2012, according to an IHS report.

In terms of an example application where BLE could be great connectivity option for industrial automation devices, look to barcode scanners—they send low volumes of data, generally infrequently and need to operate on small batteries for extended periods of time. In order to speed industrial OEMs’ implementation of BLE into devices like these, companies have developed fully certified BLE modules with integrated Cortex M0 cores with embedded, event-driven programming languages onboard. These modules allow customers to enable standalone operation of the entire BLE engine of a device, enabling sensors to be attached to any supported hardware interface without the need for an external processor or burden to the host device. Modules allow for fast time to development, fast time to market and significantly reduced development risk by providing the regulatory certifications such as FCC, CE, IC and MIC with wireless body accreditations, such as Bluetooth SIG. A simple, inbuilt application that emulates a virtual serial port connection provides OEMs with a transparent serial data communications with no programming required whatsoever. Ultimately, this means that a barcode scanner manufacturer simply needs to take a programmable module such as this, batteries and add their core expertise of the scanner engine to implement a fully certified Bluetooth Smart barcode scanner.

Conclusion

BLE has the potential to be an extremely useful technology in industrial wireless networks. As it continues to expand into new markets, BLE is expected to play a significant role in wireless-enabled industrial automation, specifically in the barcode scanner market. With the industrial automation trend and the non-retail barcode scanner market’s continual growth, OEMs who embrace the transition to BLE will be positioned to experience a cost reduction and a more productive work environment, which can help to increase market share. For more information on cable replacement solutions, please visit www.lairdtech.com/cablereplacement. Also, see our video on the BL600 Virtual Serial Port for related information.


Jonathan-KayeJonathan Kaye has been with Laird since 2008. He has been involved with embedded Bluetooth Wireless technology since early 2005 with BrainBoxes and then EZURiO Ltd. Previously, he has held positions in the UK and US in sales management and field applications engineering for embedded wireless modules, particularly Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. He is currently a product manager for Classic Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy wireless modules at the Laird facility in Wooburn Green, UK.

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