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Quuppa at heart of powerful new Bluetooth location specification

The Bluetooth SIG has just published an update to the Bluetooth specification that has added new direction-finding capabilities. Key to its development was Quuppa, a company that has been using this technology for some years, and has now contributed its expertise to the standard. We spoke to Quuppa’s Fabio Belloni, Chief Customer Officer and co-founder, and CMO Thomas Hasselman, about the background to the new features.

Before diving into that story, it is worth outlining the planned new applications. The SIG believes that location services will account for 400mn unit shipments a year, by 2022. Broadly, two new capabilities have been added, which allow devices to be located or to locate themselves to a much greater degree of accuracy. Respectively, these are Angle of Arrival (AoA) and Angle of Departure (AoD), and they can facilitate new item-finding, asset tracking, Point of Interest (PoI) information systems, Real-Time Locating Systems (RTLS), and Indoor Positioning Systems (IPS).

Effectively, this enables a Bluetooth gateway, be it a beacon or a powerful edge-computing box, to provide two new methods of location services to any Bluetooth compatible device, and the standard lays the foundation for a slew of new business opportunities for anyone wanting to build and deploy a Bluetooth network in the IoT. AoA lets a network operator find devices, while AoD lets devices themselves determine their location, based on the infrastructure around them. For a deeper dive, the SIG has published a paper, available here, which outlines version 5.1 of the Bluetooth Core Specification.

Quuppa is based in Finland, but has expanded into both the US, China, the UAE and Japan since its inception in 2012. Its origins stem from Nokia’s work on what would eventually evolve into Bluetooth Low Energy and the Angle of Arrival, which the founders were working on in the early 2000s.

The company was spun-out from Nokia to take this work further, developing its product ecosystem and its proprietary algorithms that are the special sauce in this Bluetooth recipe. It now counts more than 130 partners, providing bespoke hardware and software, with the Quuppa platform accessed via the hardware tags or software API.

Hasselman said that Quuppa was enjoying significant growth, tripling sales in 2018, as its offerings mature, and reaching 34 staff. He said that there are over 2,000 deployments globally, with recent wins including Fujitsue, Orange, Tieto, and Ubisense.

The main strengths of the offering, according to Hasselman are that it enables low-cost and long-lasting tags. On a conventional coin-cell battery, Quuppa’s implementation can provide a three-year battery life, in a typical office or enterprise environment. In warehousing applications, where messages are sent less frequently, that lifetime can be much longer.

Quuppa’s stack can also provide varying levels of complexity, depending on the requirement. Simple proximity positioning, like that found in Bluetooth beacons, is pretty straightforward, as is presence detection by listening to nearby devices. This gets much more complex once you have scaled up to the ToA and AoA positioning, which enables down to 10cm-level accuracy, which is very useful in paperless factory and just-in-time manufacturing applications. These AoA functions require more advanced gateways than simple beacons, with multiple directional antennae.

Belloni explained that while still inside Nokia Quuppa had contributed to the first draft of the new Bluetooth standard, including a reference implementation, and to this end, it has the first working implementation. Belloni said that the company had been working closely with the Bluetooth SIG since 2012, when the company was founded. The result is the 5.1 specification, which Belloni said should be viewed in two parts – the Core Certification, and the Profiles. The Core concerns the radio assets, while the Profiles define how you use the messages. Belloni’s analogy is that of a railway line, where the core defines how the rails are laid, while the profiles govern the types of train that can run on the rail and the stations they can stop at – ranging from hand-cranked to high-speed bullet trains.

To this end, Quuppa can be seen as another profile extension, in a similar manner that the iBeacon and Eddystone are also just a profile for standard beaacons. There are reference profiles available, but in Belloni’s opinion, these are more like the hand-crank, whereas what Quuppa can provide is the bullet train – this is where Quuppa’s expertise lives. Quuppa plans to license some of its proprietary extensions, which can be used with the BLE standard.

Belloni explained that the for asset tracking, Angle of Arrival approach is the one that makes most use of the server API (whether that’s a local server or a cloud-based one), where the processing is performed on the network infrastructure. This places the processing burden on the network, rather than the end-device itself, and allows a central server to control everything.

The alternative approach is the Angle of Departure, which places the burden on the mobile device. In this function, it is comparable to GPS, where the smartphone is using the available signals to determine its location in relation to the external information. This provides positioning capabilities to any device with a Bluetooth antenna and the processing power needed to assess where it is, using the identities and location information that are beamed out by the Bluetooth network infrastructure (which are called Locators). As such, you don’t need an internet connection for this function, which is rather valuable.

Belloni outlined how one set of network infrastructure would be able to support both AoA and AoD applications. In a smart city, a worker or asset tracking network could be built, to track workers and their equipment as they service the city, using the AoA techniques.

This network can then simultaneously provide the AoD functions to the citizens of this city, through a mobile application that incorporated the SDK. This would then let users determine their location in the city, without the need for a direct internet connection, and then the city could provide all manner of services based on this application. Of course, other business and service providers could make use of the AoD functions.

For the AoA application, the transmitting device that wants to be found broadcasts using a single antenna. The gateway receiver (the Locator) needs to use a multi-antenna array, to determine where the signal is coming from, after analyzing the the signal’s phase information that it receives. For AoD, the receiving device, the smartphone in the above discussion, also has a single antenna, and is listening for the transmissions from the multi-antenna array, and then calculating the relative direction of the transmitting infrastructure. A Locator can consequently provide both AoA and AoD services.

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