Bluetooth takes its name from the 10th century Danish King Harald Bluetooth, who was influential in uniting Scandinavian Europe when the region was torn apart by wars and feuding clans. Now Bluetooth has emerged as the “king” of solutions for a host of feuding situations, such as the need for cost savings, convenience, low power, increased data speeds, interoperability, and mobility—all key factors in helping Bluetooth win the connectivity wars.

Telecoms vendor Ericsson originally invented Bluetooth in 1999 as a wireless alternative to serial data cables. Bluetooth and its contemporary Wi-Fi initially were designed for high-speed local communication, and Wi-Fi seemed to win the early wireless battle with much higher transmission speeds.

Early Bluetooth versions 1.0 and 1.0B had many problems, and manufacturers had difficulty making their products interoperable. But that is all history. Bluetooth has solved its “teething” problems and found its way into low-power applications where power-hungry and CPU-hungry Wi-Fi can’t compete.

Both technologies have emerged to serve very different markets. Wi-Fi suits high-speed wireless home, office, and outdoor networks, while Bluetooth serves portable and mobile lower-speed and short-transmit-distance device-to-device communication.

Some Background

Bluetooth is a wireless protocol designed for exchanging data over short distances to and from fixed and mobile devices. It provides wireless freedom without the restriction of fixed cabling, and it’s now being implemented into an imaginative range of products. Common Bluetooth applications include headphones or GPS devices, but the list of current and potential Bluetooth-enabled products is almost endless.

Bulky network cables in a factory or office block can now disappear using a wireless replacement solution in the form of Bluetooth adapters communicating with Bluetooth-enabled products. Users can enjoy the freedom to move equipment around whenever and wherever needed. Facility managers also benefit from the potential cost savings since they don’t have to reroute data networks and power cabling to accommodate new communications systems.

Bluetooth has come a long way since the early days and is increasing its market share in the wireless world. Bluetooth V2.1+EDR provides a much higher data rate with higher security than V1 and also uses much less power. The higher security of V2.1+EDR has opened up opportunities for Bluetooth in financial transactions as well.

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In the point-of-sale market, for example, an electronic point-of-sale (EPOS) till, receipt printer, and restaurant kitchen printer all need to communicate with each other for each transaction. There are now Bluetooth adapters and modules that operate exactly like an RS232 cable and include error messages such as “out of paper,” which is very important when using a remote printer.

For industrial uses, a Bluetooth-enabled USB adapter at the PC end of a network provides an easy to use and potentially “green” solution for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) installations.

Many development platforms are available for designing Bluetooth circuitry, which is usually attempted by companies with in-house wireless expertise and volume product development capabilities. Quicker solutions include commercially available RS232 and USB Bluetooth adapters used for plug-and-play proof-of-concept for low- to mid-volume products.

Projects often start with external adapters and move to ready-made dual-inline pin (DIP) modules that can be plugged into a printed-circuit board (PCB) without requiring any wireless expertise in-house. For larger production runs, surface-mount modules are available in a smaller footprint.

Bluetooth adapters and board-level modules need to comply with required radio standards (e.g., FCC, CE, BQB) and save significant headaches when getting product approval. A variety of design-in products allows designers to incorporate Bluetooth technology with a solution that suits specific project and expertise needs.

Piggy-In-The-Middle

Bluetooth could be viewed in between ZigBee (very low power) and Wi-Fi (high data rates) technology (see the table). ZigBee is known for its very low energy consumption, suiting it for applications like battery-powered meter reading systems. Wi-Fi boasts higher data rates, and its applications are ubiquitous.

Bluetooth has a much higher data rate than ZigBee and much lower power consumption than Wi-Fi. However, the very latest Bluetooth technology and standards are taking Bluetooth well into ZigBee territory with very low energy requirements while delivering the higher data rates commonly seen in the Wi-Fi arena.

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Now Bluetooth Low Energy has been designed with a goal of giving devices extended battery life. Soon, watches will utilize Bluetooth Low Energy technology to display caller ID information, and sports sensors will monitor and transmit exercise heart rate. The Medical Devices Working Group of the Bluetooth SIG is creating a Medical Devices Profile to enable Bluetooth applications for this vertical market.

In 2010, the Bluetooth SIG completed the Bluetooth Core Specification version 4.0, which includes Classic Bluetooth, Bluetooth High Speed, and Bluetooth Low Energy protocols. Bluetooth High Speed is based on Wi-Fi, and Classic Bluetooth consists of legacy Bluetooth protocols.

Power Rangers

Ultra-low energy consumption is expected to be the next growth area in Bluetooth wireless technology. It provides an ideal solution for portable, battery-powered products that demand a fraction of the power use of existing Bluetooth solutions. New markets that previously could not be Bluetooth-enabled are now emerging. This is especially important in the medical product arena, where patients are encouraged to be mobile but need constant monitoring in real time.

In the home, for instance, Bluetooth is increasingly being used to regularly connect patients and hospitals via the nearest Internet connection. This results in a reduction in the number of hospital visits required as well as in their associated costs. Additionally, as power requirements decrease even further, the overlap into traditional ZigBee markets will increase. One application in view is the power-meter reading market.

In 2011, Bluetooth UWB (Ultra Wide Band) will become available. It will increase the data rate significantly to overlap into traditional Wi-Fi markets, especially in office environments. The ability to move offices or office equipment without needing to route data and power cables into walls represents a significant cost savings. The ability to provide sufficient bandwidth for several wireless color printers, for instance, available to everyone in a room, means valuable installation cost savings and improved convenience for office systems.

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The nearly 30 different communication profiles within the Bluetooth standard provide channels for communication between devices and the individual features required for each of the industry channels. For example, the Audio Profiles provide all the features to allow trouble-free audio transmission via Bluetooth, with high-performance expectations realized. The Serial Port Profile is used for physical cable replacement, as in industrial SCADA installations. Each project has the option of selecting a profile specific to its application so all the required features are activated and fully available.

With the whole world looking for ways to become greener and use less energy, Bluetooth technology is rapidly increasing in importance as equipment designers and end users seek to be innovative and offer flexible energy-efficient solutions. The ability to be competitive is another good reason to consider Bluetooth solutions during tough economic times. The availability of Bluetooth solutions that retrofit into an existing system and provide additional functionality and convenience to the customer can give installers a genuine edge over the competition in winning business.

A vast number of Bluetooth-enabled products is currently available. This increased usage of Bluetooth technology gives designers more interoperability opportunities. Getting products to talk to these inviting neighbors is sometimes as easy as purchasing an off-the-shelf Bluetooth converter or designing in a ready-made module exactly matching project requirements.

Bluetooth Applications Make a Difference

Bluetooth hands-free capability is either built in or added as an aftermarket extra in many cars. It’s also commonly featured in GPS units and cell-phones. The safety and convenience aspects of hands-free operation have increased driving safety by enabling drivers to use both hands to steer while conversing. This is a prime example of technology affecting nationwide legislation.

In automobile diagnostics, Bluetooth is used within factories to report manufacturing parameters within production processes to the control center. This improves the performance of manufacturing robots and other factory machinery in real time.

In auto racing, trackside circuit timing and performance characteristics can be received back to base via Bluetooth as vehicles travel around a circuit. Bluetooth-enabled hardware is also being used to effect changes and programming to vehicle engine control units (ECUs) remotely via Bluetooth in real time.

In transportation applications, Bluetooth is being used to record driving parameters and tachometer readings. When an emergency service vehicle or delivery truck arrives back at base, its data is downloaded to a server via a Bluetooth connection.

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This driving information is important not only for accident evidence requirements like an airplane’s black box but also in recording driving habits and vehicle wear and tear. In turn, this may identify additional driver training opportunities that can ultimately result in significant financial savings.

When GPS is used for sending vehicle location information to a central office at the end of the day, Bluetooth can be employed to transmit information from the in-vehicle data logger to the driver’s phone and then to the office. Some companies require tachometer information to be sent in at the end of every day no matter where the vehicle is. The ease of using Bluetooth to transmit this information from a data-logger to a phone provides an easy solution for drivers.

In earlier days, patient monitoring in hospitals meant physical connections to equipment and restricted mobility. Advances in less invasive medical procedures have allowed early mobility after an operation. Bluetooth is providing the means for patients to be constantly monitored while they’re freely mobile in a hospital environment.

This accelerates patient recovery. It also provides tangible significant cost savings to the hospital. Once the patient is at home, remote monitoring is Bluetooth-enabled, providing early warning of potential problems if the patient deviates from the expected recovery path, allowing timely intervention by a medical team.

And, many systems already use Bluetooth to permit efficient and seamless operation without operator intervention. In the vending machine market, Bluetooth networks can send audit information back to a headquarters via a server (e.g., remote malfunction warnings). The cost savings of having Bluetooth sending information to the servicing office is significant and enables higher quality of service and reliability.

In the consumer realm, hands-free headsets are the most common Bluetooth application. But increasingly, phones are being networked with Bluetooth into company networks and then on to the Internet via a router. Bluetooth technology also is changing the way we listen to music, enabling wireless streaming of digital music from almost any audio player.

With wireless control of audio devices, Bluetooth is becoming a necessity for music lovers, with products from Bluetooth stereo transceivers to Bluetooth stereo headphones. Bluetooth stereo audio uses the A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Profile) Profile, which replaces wires and cables between speakers and audio output devices.

Playing video games is now much better than the old days when players had to be close to the TV because of controller cord restrictions. Bluetooth also eliminates the situation on work desks with virtually no workspace because of all the cables, cradles, and docking stations needed for connecting cameras, PDAs, and MP3 players. And, cameras now feature Bluetooth, enabling instant image transmission to the nearest color printer or PC, eliminating the tendency to store pictures on cameras for weeks or longer before they are downloaded.