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27 February 2015

Bluetooth SIG launches mesh network working group

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), the body that manages the technical standard that defines one of the most widely deployed communications protocols in the world, has announced the formation of a mesh network working group – with the goal of adding mesh networking functionality to the Bluetooth standard in 2016.

This is big news for the protocol, which is currently installed in virtually every smartphone, as well as a whole host of legacy phones and other devices. The mesh approach needs to add the new functionality to the standard, while avoiding backwards-compatibility issues with the Bluetooth Low Energy (4.1 and 4.2) that was marketed heavily as an IoT-ready protocol – as well as the older legacy versions.

“The Bluetooth SIG is very good at standardizing its technology and creating platforms that ensure product interoperability, while allowing members the flexibility to innovate,” said Mark Powell, the executive director of the SIG. “Our members are extremely interested in mesh networking, not just for the smart home, but for every Bluetooth vertical.”

Upwards of 80 companies have volunteered to work in the Bluetooth Smart Mesh Working Group, to give it its full name. The SIG says this is among the highest popularity for any previous working group, with members joining from a broad array of industries – including automotive, industrial automation, consumer electronics and computing.

Looking to avoid the awkward fragmentation of the standard that ZigBee forced itself into (with different protocols to match different uses), the SIG aims to develop a single common framework that all members can develop to accordingly.

Previous attempts at forging Bluetooth into a mesh network have mostly risen out of CSR, a company in the process of being bought by Qualcomm for $2.5 billion. Its CSRMesh has so far made appearances predominantly in lighting products, but can support a theoretical maximum of 64,000 controlled nodes. Notably, its creator, Robin Heydon, has been assigned as chairman of the new mesh working group, so we anticipate elements of CSR’s current design forming at least part of the addition – confirmed by a CSR statement that directly said it would be contributed CSR code to the project.

Separately, CSR is planning to launch the home automation flavor of CSR mesh in April, after the successful launch of the lighting version. The new additions include adjustable wake patterns, to help conserve batteries in remote devices, and the ability for devices to send their data (such as status updates or commands) to proxy demands.

This lets a device wake and send its message in a short amount of time, on the assumption that it can go back to sleep as the message will be safely conveyed down the chain of the mesh network to its destination – a rather important part of mesh networking functionality.

After the smart home, CSR hopes to chase industrial installations, with a particular focus on asset tracking. Logistics applications seem well suited to mesh networks. In an area such as a warehouse, the lighting units, doors, alarms, mobile machinery, and even the workers could all form part of a mesh network. Those nodes would be used to relay information from Bluetooth tags, ideally affixed to the assets you want to track.