This year is going to be a big one for Bluetooth technologies in the smart home. Thanks to some updates in the Bluetooth standard from a year ago, we’re seeing products such as light bulbs, outlets and more using the radio technology to connect devices. But it’s not just the standards update that’s helped; a few firms have also introduced software that have allowed companies to turn their Bluetooth radios into a mesh network that offers more resiliency and range for the technology.
The Bluetooth SIG will embrace mesh
One of the more popular is CSRmesh, the software designed by CSR, the company that helped invent Bluetooth and is now in the process of being acquired by Qualcomm. Now a year old, and primarily used in lighting products like those out from Samsung or Avi-On, the CSRmesh tech lets you group up to 64,000 bulbs or devices together.
But it can do so much more. And soon it will. I took some time to discuss the technology with Rick Walker, who is in marketing with CSR to discover what’s next for the technology and whether we may see it integrated into the official Bluetooth standard anytime soon.
The answer on that last question is a solid maybe. Tuesday, the Blueooth SIG will be announcing the creation of a working group chaired by Robin Heydon, the creator of CSRmesh to study the addition of mesh networking to the Bluetooth Smart standard. While it may not adopt the CSR standard exactly, it’s likely that we will see a mesh technology added to the Bluetooth standard and some aspects of the CSR attributes win out.
Sleepy sensors and actuators
In the meantime, CSR is pushing ahead with the launch in April of a new Home Automation version of the CSRmesh technology that will add new capabilities to the tech to preserve the battery life of sensors and things like door locks in the home. the update will let sensors using the tech wake only when there’s new information to be sent and when they do send it, they can send it to a proxy device, such a light bulb that’s plugged in if the receiving device isn’t online.
The second capability it adds is a different wake pattern for actuators such as a door lock or a vent control. These will wake often for a very short amount of time to listen for a message and then go back to sleep. The idea is is should take between 30 milliseconds and 100 milliseconds for a message to hit and flip the bolt, vent or other piece that requires movement.
The goal is to save as much power as possible, without sacrificing responsiveness in the network. Other elements of the CSR mesh that are pretty exciting from a home and building automation point of view are the grouping features and ability to use proximity to trigger events. These won’t be out until the October time frame when the next iteration of the home automation version of the CSRmesh standard comes out, but I want them today.
The asset model looks promising
Because Bluetooth radios are very distance sensitive, you can use them to understand how close you are to a particular item. So when your phone or key fob, for example, is within 20 feet of a lock it might open it. Certain devices can do this today. But as part of the CSRmesh standard that could become much easier to implement, and one could do it for a variety of devices. So your locks could open, or your lights you turn on (or off). It’s part of what Walker called the asset model, where each device with a radio is tagged as an asset and devices respond to it.
Also as part of the asset model, the devices in your home could find a particular asset. So if your keys have a fob, you could issue a command asking your home to find your keys and all of the BLE devices on the mesh could send out a signal. Your kitchen lights might send back a message saying, the key fob is nearby, while a Bluetooth outlet on the counter gets the strongest signals and signals that they are closest to it.
All of these sound pretty awesome, although there are other mesh networking technologies out there including the older ZigBee and Z-wave radios that are in millions of devices. They don’t have the advantage of being on people’s handsets, which is something Bluetooth has going for it. And to get the benefits of CSRmesh, all one has to do is download an application that uses the CSRmesh software on top of a radio running Bluetooth 4.0, which is what current generation iOS and Android handsets are using.
On the security front, the CSRmesh uses AES encryption to stop eavesdroppers and authentication at both ends to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks. It also prevents replay attacks where someone can copy messages and replay them, by inserting a numerical sequence at the beginning of each radio transmission that is then replayed out of sequence if copied.
We’ll have to wait for some of the cool features, although the security elements are already in the mesh today. What I take from all of this is that we’re going to be able to solve many of the problems of the smart home many different ways which means standardization is probably a ways off. And that in turn means, it’s hard to go out there and shell out a lot of money for new devices. Although with Bluetooth I guess you don’t have to spend all that much.