BLE and Bluetooth 5.1 redefine the future of smart homes

23rd April 2019
Lanna Cooper

Just a few years ago smart homes seemed like a far-off, science-fiction idea. Smart lights, smart locks, smart garage doors, smart refrigerators, smart thermostats, smart ovens, smart TVs, smart speakers, smart fireplaces - all wirelessly connected and controlled from a single device, or even just by the sound of your voice.

By: Erik Peters, International Product Marketing Manager, BLE at Dialog Semiconductor.

Fast-forward to today and not only are smart homes a reality, they’re becoming increasingly mainstream. If you don’t have a voice-controlled smart TV that can queue up a streaming service just by saying its name, or a digital assistant smart speaker that can set timers for whatever you’re cooking for dinner just by asking it to, then you’ve probably been to someone else’s house who does.

As we look ahead to an increasingly connected world, where it’s not just smart homes becoming the norm but smart everything, we should take stock of how exactly this is possible in the first place. Particularly the role that Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology and the new Bluetooth 5.1 protocol will play. Only by examining how we get this technology to work at all can we further push the envelope and answer the question we all have about the smart home and smart devices: What’s next?

How BLE is changing the game
The only reason the smart home concept is viable at all is because BLE tech offers a wireless communications standard that is low in both cost and power consumption. Because of that reduced price tag and power consumption relative to other radio frequency standards, BLE has proven itself as the suitable choice for both transmitting short bursts of data and as the standard for networking smart devices together. BLE’s scalability ensures that as smart homes continue to grow in mainstream popularity - and the devices that make up a smart home grow in number - Bluetooth will be able to keep up.

Expanding connectivity with Bluetooth mesh
The Bluetooth SIG announced support for mesh networking back in 2017. Bluetooth mesh enables a 'many-to-many' method of communications, where signals can be transmitted across multiple devices at once (as opposed to just one device transmitting to another single device). Right off the bat, this sounds perfect for the smart home: from your phone you’d be able to dictate communications to several other devices around the house, like thermostats, speakers and lights, in one fell swoop.

BLE support for mesh networking goes a step further though, not just in expanding the field of signals (and devices to transmit and receive them), but also in reducing the footprint of that network. Because Bluetooth mesh can be easily deployed quickly and cost effectively, it comes practically built in with a virtually limitless capacity for scaling up. In other words, however many more devices the smart home of the next five years, 10 years and 50 years will include, BLE is future-proofed to accommodate them all.

Finding a new direction with AoA and AoD
What Bluetooth 5.1 brings to the BLE table are two new positioning systems: Angle of Arrival (AoA) and Angle of Departure (AoD). Both are critical to the success and future viability of smart home devices.

Imagine coming home after a long day at work and wanting to have your favorite settings - a song you want to hear, the lights dimmed and temperature set to your liking, the oven already beginning to pre-heat for dinner - all switched on the second you walk in. AoA and AoD effectively do just that, determining when a given smart device is near others, as well as what in direction these devices are located.

This functionality facilitates 'follow me'-style location detection, which in turn empowers smart home owners to queue up their devices to trigger certain actions - like those aforementioned favorite settings - whenever one device (for instance, a key fob that the person uses to enter the house) comes near others (e.g. smart lights, smart speakers, smart thermostats, smart sprinklers, etc).

In this way, AoA and AoD effectively automate the smart home, having it run to users’ preferences without even needing the user to do anything but walk through the door.

Prioritising security for private data
As devices get smarter and more embedded into what we’re doing on a day-to-day basis - and the data those devices track along the way - fears of what’s happening with that data are becoming more acute. We already see a lot of fearmongering about what tech companies and smart home manufacturers are doing with our data, and how much of that data they’re collecting: are smart speakers, or the mics in our phones, actually listening in on our conversations?

More than ever, the need to prioritise data security is a top concern for both consumers and manufacturers. BLE checks off this box by utilising end-to-end encryption along Bluetooth connections between smart home devices, ensuring that your data stays private and minimising fears and risks of it being hacked or illicitly used against you. Features like secure key storage and authentication protocols provide an extra layer of security, so that applications like mobile payments are under a tighter lock and key.

On the horizon
At the end of the day, answering, 'What’s next?' for the smart home industry is difficult to determine, because the reality is that anything and everything could be next. Automated houses that could turn on the lights, start the laundry and cooking, and switch the TV to your favorite channel just by having you walk in the front door used to be something that only existed in something like Back to the Future.

Now, most of that scenario is already a reality, and the rest is just around the corner. When it comes to envisioning the future of the smart home, the imagination is the limit - thanks in large part to the versatility, functionality, power-conscious and security-heavy array of features that BLE and Bluetooth 5.1 bring to the table.

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