Bluetooth is about to become a hell of a lot more useful. Today the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (“SIG”), the industry body that defines the standard, has announced the standards for mesh network. This might sound like a dull technical update - but it could transform technology and the world around us. Here’s all you need to know.
It’s Going To Supercharge The Internet Of Things
At the moment, the annoying thing about Bluetooth devices is limited range. If you have, say, Bluetooth lightbulbs in your house, for them to remain connected they need to be in range of a Bluetooth hub. This isn’t great if you have a moderately sized house, or if you want to put your hub in the corner - not everything will reach!
This is where the power of mesh networking comes in: now imagine if every Bluetooth device (or “node”) on your Bluetooth network acted like a range extender, where data from further away devices can be passed through other Bluetooth devices until it reaches where it needs to reach. For example - imagine sitting on your sofa, you send an “on” command for the lights in the back bedroom. Even if you’re out of range of those specific lights, the command could be picked up by the lights in your kitchen and relayed on to the back bedroom.
It Will Blanket The World With Bluetooth Networks
Pretty nifty, right? Bluetooth SIG see this as only the beginning, because if you have a home or a workplace where every light-bulb is Bluetooth enabled, this doesn’t just mean you have smart lighting… you have in fact built a building-wide Bluetooth network blanket, which can talk to every other Bluetooth device in the building. Now the garage-door opening can remain connected through Bluetooth, and now the sensors in your flowerbed can communicate.
It gets even smarter, because Bluetooth beacons can be used to track your phone/watch/etc down to perhaps the nearest centimetre. This same Bluetooth mesh network could be used to configure things just how you want them as soon as you enter a room. Imagine as soon as you step into the living room if the air conditioning was to set the temperature exactly how you like it - and then then the lights would switch to the exact colours and mood that you like best, without you having to lift a finger or press a button.
Expect to see a lot more graphics like this in the future.
Here I’ve just focused on the potential for what it could do in the home as that’s the most relatable impact it could have. But perhaps the real value in Bluetooth Mesh comes to industry and commerce, with what they call “asset management” or “keeping track of stuff” in layperson’s terms,, being the most useful implementation so far envisaged.
For example, imagine as your shopping is shuttled around a warehouse if it was possible to more closely track its exact location using these beacons: Retails would be less likely to screw up your order. Or imagine a building site: If you lose track of your drill, you’d simply be able to press a button and have Bluetooth locate it, as every device on the mesh network would be looking for it.
This is probably just scratching the surface too, the key thing is that it could make Bluetooth devices completely ubiquitous, while enabling them to remain connected.
There’s No Single Point Of Failure
In a mesh network, no single node is the single point of failure. Unlike a network where everything runs through a hub, if you take one device out, the rest of the network can carry on just fine. This makes Bluetooth Mesh a more robust way of connecting things than using the traditional Bluetooth model in which everything is tethered to one device (probably your phone).
If you lose your phone with a traditional Bluetooth device, it means that all of the devices fail. With Bluetooth Mesh, you don’t pair devices together: You “provision” them by granting them access to the security keys they need to talk to other devices. Everything can continue talking to each other without your phone in the middle, and you can simply attach your new phone to the network without needing to setup everything again.
It’s Energy Efficient
Bluetooth Mesh is built on top of the Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) standard, and one of the goals of the new standard is to carefully manage how power is used - because many Bluetooth devices are battery powered. The thinking appears to be as follows: the reason Bluetooth is clever is because it is wireless. This means that you can build, say, a temperature sensor, and stick it on the side of a building and it can communicate back to base without needing a massive wire. The problem then, is that such a device would need batteries - and you don’t want to be constantly trying to access awkward spots to replace batteries.
To ensure efficiency, Mesh has a feature built into it called “friendship” - this is where devices that are mains powered (say, those Bluetooth lightbulbs) can pick up the slack in terms of processing and transmitting data from energy conscious, battery-powered devices.
I wouldn't fancy climbing the rigging to replace that stadium sensor too often.
An example of this would be that temperature sensor. Imagine you wanted it to report every the temperature rose above a certain point - only then would it switch on the radio and send the update back to your other devices. And imagine if you wanted to update the temperature threshold: rather than leave itself switched to battery-sapping “receive” mode 24/7, instead it could switch on instead for a couple of seconds every hour - and it could instead download new commands that have been temporarily stored on a nearby device instead.
It’s this feature more than any other that means that, in all likelihood, Bluetooth is about to become even more ubiquitous in everyday objects.
It’s Super Secure
There are also some clever security tricks built into the new standard. Perhaps most important thing is that it separates “network” level security from “application” level security. So when you provision a device to join the Bluetooth network, that will be halfway to getting it talking to other devices on the network - but it will also require a separate set of cryptographic keys to exchange data with specific apps.
People with more important jobs than writing about technology could end up using Bluetooth Mesh devices too.
What this means is that even if an unauthorised user could connect to your Bluetooth network, they wouldn’t be able to control your lights without going through another cryptographic hurdle. In practice what this more likely means is that even if hackers find an exploit in, say, the software running on your Bluetooth lights, it means they still won’t be able to access your Bluetooth door lock. Though your lights will be able to convey messages to and from your lock to other devices, it won’t be able to read the messages in transit.
This separation, between network and application also means that access can be separated on a user-by-user basis. If hotel rooms used Bluetooth locks, for example, it would mean that each lock could be “cryptographically separate” from each other, to maximise security.
There are built in controls against replay attacks and even “trash can” attacks too - the latter meaning that even if the baddies rummage through your bins and pick out your old IoT devices, they won’t be able to break into the network.
Your Phone Already Works With It
And finally here’s what I think is the most amazing part: your phone, and your existing devices might already work with Bluetooth Mesh. It’s built on top of the Bluetooth 4.0 and Low Energy standards, and uses the same hardware - so all it would require is a software update. According to Bluetooth SIG, something like 96% of phones already support this - so the phone in your pocket is already ready.
Even better, it apparently won’t even require Apple or Google to update their operating systems to support Mesh - it will just require IoT manufacturers to update their apps, and the software running on their hardware. Obviously these updates won’t be immediate or entirely universal, as it will depend on the hardware capabilities of individual IoT devices, but it does mean that a lot already are. Amazing.
So today’s announcement might not sound particularly exciting, but the implications are profound: The future will be infused with Bluetooth and connected devices.
We’re looking forward to building a Bluetooth network with our lights already.