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Everything you wanted to know about BLE but were afraid to ask

What is BLE and how does it work? Find out here advantages of Bluetooth Low Energy wireless technology and answers to the most common questions about it

Bluetooth origin

To better understand Bluetooth low energy, let's start with the definition of Bluetooth technology itself. For most of us, Bluetooth is something that helps us listen to music from our favorite iPhone or Android without the threat of getting strangled with headphone wires. This is partially true, but first and foremost, it's a technology that enables that wireless connection so you can forget about cables and move more freely.

Bluetooth was developed as a short-distance wire replacement technology. It started with simple tasks like replacing cables in mouses and keyboards or communicating with a Personal Digital Assistant, widespread in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fun fact is that its name comes from the 10th century. Ericsson was the first to release the official version of Bluetooth in 1994. It is named after King Harald "Bluetooth" Gormsson of Denmark and Norway. Who is famous for unifying warring factions.

We bet he would get really surprised finding out that people use his nickname to describe wireless headphones. Actually, it's not just about headphones. Our smartwatches, remotes, laptops, and other gadgets mainly connect using Bluetooth wireless technology for short ranges. But engineeringly speaking, it's a frequency-hopping radio technology transmitting data packets within the 2.4 GHz band. The packets are exchanged via one of 79 Bluetooth channels. Each of those channels is 1 MHZ in bandwidth. Also, it's important to note that Bluetooth was developed to work with applications that stream data continually. It directly affects its power consumption since continuous exchange requires it to run all the time. This connection works great for wireless devices like headsets, earbuds, keyboards, printers, watches, speakers, and many more similar gadgets. It also supports processes like file transferring. But as humans, we always strive to take more from life, and it doesn't exclude tech. So why spend our precious device's battery power on Bluetooth continuing processes when we can utilize it for something else? That's when Bluetooth Low Energy enters the equation.

 

Bluetooth Low Energy or BLE

Bluetooth Low Energy, also known as Bluetooth LE, BLE, and even Bluetooth Smart, is a low-energy form of short-range wireless communication. BLE's low energy consumption allows applications to work longer on a smaller battery. The purpose of those applications differs from the ones we talked about in a previous paragraph. They are usually designed for narrower audiences and tasks that exchange small amounts of data without draining the battery.

Let's take a specific example of Bluetooth Smart usage – BLE beacons for advertisement. You, a shopping center visitor, stroll through the mall corridors. The Bluetooth in your smartphone is enabled. Suddenly you get a promotional notification from a store nearby about a flash sale happening right now. So how did it happen? The Bluetooth LE beacon is deployed at the entrance of a store. It transmits a signal in its range, which usually varies from 20 to 300 metres. The smartphones that appear in this range indicate that they are nearby and send their ID number attached to the signal to the cloud. The server reacts by responding with a notification about a firesale for the smartphone's user. These offers and notifications can get pretty targeted if some previously collected data about that smartphone ID is involved. The BLE broadcast functionality is possible to attain after the BLE antenna is added to a Wi-Fi access point. Yet, there's another way that doesn't even require physical BLE beacons deployed. A virtual BLE Wi-Fi beacon can be added to a network. This means no beacons and no batteries. Although, it only works for indoor purposes.

Bluetooth vs. Bluetooth Low Energy

Now, when we have enough understanding about both Bluetooth and BLE, let's take a closer look to see the differences and implementation distinctions.

Power consumption

Just a few batteries can power BLE's devices for a year or even more. In comparison, classic Bluetooth devices will require constant power input or battery recharging.

Simultaneous connections

Bluetooth Low Energy can set up to 20 connections at the same time. Bluetooth can initiate only seven simultaneous connections. It is due to the fact that BLE transmits small data packets and establishes fast connections.

Applications

Classic Bluetooth is best suited for solutions that demand continuously streaming data. On the other hand, Bluetooth LE works great for solutions that require an occasional transfer of data and a limited amount of battery usage.

Best use for BLE

Smart Devices

Most smart devices do not have enough power to support Bluetooth. Almost all smartphones have BLE – it means easy compatibility. Most other devices also use BLE to intercommunicate with each other.

Location Tracking

GPS may be good at locating, but it's no good in indoor spaces. BLE offers a practical alternative for indoor tracking. Combine it with beacons, and you can track a smartphone travelling from room to room.

Asset Management

Imagine owning a warehouse full of expensive tools that are easy to lose or steal. BLE can track those physical tools providing a great system of asset management. Each tool gets a BLE tag and can be tracked.

Employee safety

BLE tags can ensure staff safety in many ways. One of the most popular safety solutions is a panic button. Any job connected to dealing with a mass amount of people on a daily basis can use one, especially when money is involved. These can be used by bank employees, hotel staff, night bars, etc. When wearing a BLE tag, the employees can secretly call for help in case of need. Besides alerting the security team, a tag will also provide a rather precise location on where the emergency situation occurs.

Another case is fall detection. BLE tags with movement detection can register falls whenever it's a nursing home or a construction site and alert the responsible people about an emergency situation. Again, they will receive not only a notification but also a precise location of an event.

Is Bluetooth Low Energy Secure

All Bluetooth LE connections are fitted with AES-128 end-to-end encryption. It protects data from being read by interception. Although Man-in-the-Middle attacks are viable, they can only happen in a short time window when devices are pairing. Another good security thing is BLE's limited connection range. In order to hack, someone has to get real close.

Summary

Obviously, Bluetooth Low Energy has many benefits over classic Bluetooth. But it's not better – it's different. So whenever you're looking for a solution that will work with limited amounts of data and its periodic transmissions, BLE is the way to go. But if you need something with constant data exchange and power supply is not an issue, then you should consider classic Bluetooth.

May 26,2022 ● 7 min read
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