Bluetooth Beacons, iBeacons, Eddystone and IoT

bluetoothWhat have Bluetooth Beacons, iBeacons and Eddystone to do with the Internet of Things (IoT)? What’s the role of smartphones and apps in IoT?

The IoT is the networking of physical objects such that they can be sensed or controlled remotely. The Enabling the Internet of Things article is a great primer. Ignoring for a moment the complex issues of data management, analytics, security and privacy, IoT has a connectivity problem.

The physical ‘things’ need to connect. However, they are often cost constrained and/or energy (battery) constrained and/or resource (cpu/memory) constrained so many can’t have their own WiFi. As a paper from the University of Michigan says, ‘The Internet of Things Has a Gateway Problem‘. Most current IoT solutions either implement expensive WiFi or have a separate router. The main problem with the separate router approach is that this will become impractical when a large number of things, for example in the home, become part of the IoT. You won’t want a router for each service.

Some people say Bluetooth Beacons, iBeacons and Eddystone are part of the IoT but I’d argue they strictly aren’t as current implementations don’t talk over an Internet protocol (IPv6) – yet. There’s a draft specification for IPv6 over Bluetooth LE  and the Nordic nRF51 SoC used in many iBeacons, has an SDK for IPv6 over Bluetooth® Smart.

Even with IPv6 over Bluetooth LE there’s a router problem. Something needs to forward on the IPv6 data. In Nordic’s implementation a Raspberry Pi is used as a Bluetooth Smart router. However, the good thing is only one router, per location, is needed for multiple services. Another future possibility is to use smartphones as the IPv6 router.

Another problem is the capability (cpu, memory) of current SoCs typically isn’t sufficient to run IPv6 over Bluetooth LE and the core functionality of whatever it is doing/monitoring. However, newer SoC such as Nordic’s nRF52 Series might help solve this problem.

Whether now or in the future, smartphones can be used to pass on either the data itself communicated via BLE or data wrapped via the IPv6 protocol. Smartphones are the enabling technology. Apps are also ideally placed to provide a UI to control and view local or remote IoT devices.

So what can the Bluetooth beacons do? Up to now, most uses have been in the retail and visitor spaces with an emphasis on location. However, IoT is more about sensing and control. What can beacons sense? Current beacons can sense acceleration, temperature and humidity. A conversation with Terence Eden on Twitter made me realise that current beacons already offer a bit more. Some of them have on-off switches, turning broadcasting on/off, that can be directly wired into other sensors such as door/open close sensors, other security sensors or other on/off circuits.