Bluetooth finds a role in the industrial internet of things

Market awareness and penetration, plus new technological advancements, are making Bluetooth—yes, Bluetooth—a key networking technology for the IIoT.

Bluetooth finds a role in the industrial internet of things
Michael Brown / IDG

Like most people, I think of Bluetooth as a useful but consumer-oriented technology that lets me make easy wireless connections from my smartphone to various headsets, portable speakers, automobile, and other devices. And, of course, billions of people rely on Bluetooth for exactly those capabilities. But according to Chuck Sabin, senior director of market development for the Bluetooth SIG, the technology is growing into a key role in the industrial internet of things (IIoT).

Sabin says, Bluetooth “technology is actually well-suited for both consumer and enterprise markets.” He cites Bluetooth’s easy-to-implement low-power connections. More importantly, though, Bluetooth is ubiquitous, enjoying 90% global awareness and global, multi-vendor interoperability. 

Bluetooth offers low deployment costs and massive economies of scale because it’s already built into virtually every new smartphone, tablet, and personal computer, not to mention a wide variety of wearables, smart speakers, and other devices, notes Sabin. That means IIoT deployments leveraging Bluetooth may be able to avoid having to build a completely proprietary solution to start using wireless systems in smart-building and smart-industry environments.

3 things driving Bluetooth adoption in IIoT?

In addition to Bluetooth’s deep market penetration, Sabin cites three notable technical advancements that are driving Bluetooth adoption in industrial and enterprise IoT applications:

  1. “The introduction of Bluetooth 5 in 2016 was all about flexibility,” Sabin explains. Bluetooth 5’s longer range and higher speeds provide the crucial flexibility necessary to support more reliable connections in a wide variety of large, noisy environments, like those of industrial or commercial spaces. For example, Sabin says, “a warehouse is a much different environment than the basement of a nuclear power plant. One is open and requires long-range connections, and the other is a more complex environment with a lot of interference, requiring a reliable connection or device network that can deliver information despite the noise.”

  2. Bluetooth mesh, released In July of 2017, extends the Bluetooth Core Specification to enable “industrial-grade” many-to-many communication, Sabin says, where tens, hundreds, and even thousands of devices can reliably and securely communicate with one another. “Bluetooth mesh networks are ideally suited for control, monitoring, and automation systems,” Sabin claims, and can also reduce latency and improve security.

  3. More recently, the Bluetooth SIG announced a new direction-finding feature for Bluetooth, bringing even greater precision to location-services systems used in industrial and enterprise settings. Bluetooth low energy introduced the ability to roughly determine the location of a Bluetooth device by comparing signal strength between the device being located and the tracking device, at what Sabin calls a “fairly broad—“the device is in this room”—level of accuracy. This led to inexpensive, mass-market indoor location and asset tracking solutions.

    The new direction-finding feature makes this much more precise: “Not only is the device in a specific room, but it’s in the back, left corner,” he says. And the Bluetooth SIG is working to add distance to this feature, so users will know whether “the device is in this specific room, in the back, left the corner, and 30 feet from me right now.” This level of precision will enable new applications, including monitoring for safety and security, Sabin says: for example, helping keep workers out of a toxic environment.

IioT Bluetooth use cases

Put all those developments together, and you enable device networks, Sabin says, where interconnected networks of devices are used to control lighting systems, sensor networks, and asset management solutions.

The Bluetooth SIG divides smart buildings and smart industry into three primary categories:

  1. Building automation: The centralized automation of a factory’s essential systems—including lighting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and security—which can help conserve energy, lower operating costs, and improve the life cycle of a building’s core systems.
  2. Condition monitoring: Bluetooth sensor networks deployed across a factory floor or throughout an office building enable real-time monitoring of system performance to make maintenance, updating, and overall management more efficient.
  3. Location services: This can take on many forms, from wayfinding to asset tracking/management to indoor positioning and location and logistics solutions.

Use cases in manufacturing include helping manufacturers better monitor location, availability, and condition of equipment and output across the supply chain, Sabin says. Using enterprise wearables is helping manufacturers improve material management and process flow. Bluetooth location services are employing beacons to boost safety and security in chemical and manufacturing plants by creating geo-fences for restricted access and tracking numbers of employees in critical areas.

Bluetooth Mesh was actually designed with connected lighting in mind, Sabin says, enabling everything from connected lighting in building automation to what he called Lighting-as-a Platform (LaaP) for deploying these services.

Fast growth for Bluetooth in the IIoT

Based on these trends and advancements, the Bluetooth SIG’s recent Bluetooth Market Update predicts a 7x growth in annual shipments of Bluetooth smart-building location services devices by 2023, with 374 million Bluetooth smart-building devices shipping that year. The update also sees a 5x growth in annual shipments of Bluetooth smart-industry devices by 2023. These shipments are growing at of 47% a year, Sabin says, and will account for 70% of market shipments in 2023. The report also forecasts a 3.5x increase in shipments of Bluetooth enterprise wearables for smart industry use cases by 2023, with a 28% annual growth rate over the next five years.

That’s only if everything goes as planned, of course. Sabin warns that industrial and enterprise organizations often adopt new technology relatively slowly, looking for clear ROIs that may not always be fully fleshed out for new technologies. And, yes, no doubt some decision makers still think of Bluetooth as a short-range, point-to-point, consumer-grade technology not ready for enterprise and industrial environments.

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