Bluetooth Low Energy rides the Wave at Electronica

Electronica only comes every other year but it’s still the biggest electronics trade show in the world.  The last time it ran, Bluetooth low energy was still better known as Wibree.  In the intervening two years half a dozen companies have announced chips and the standard has been completed and published.  So visitors to Munich last week had the first major opportunity for to see just how much progress has been made.

It’s obvious that the industry has moved from PowerPoint presentations to reality.  Chips were on display, along with development boards and the first few modules.  In the Forum within Electronica there were sessions on the applications it will enable, and in the adjoining Wireless Congress a full day’s track was devoted to developer training and further applications.

The silicon and tools are definitely here.  Now it’s time for developers to add their imagination.

blebulb.jpgStarting with the silicon, the most prominent demonstration was that from EM Microelectronics.  EM are a division of Swatch and specialise in ultra low power micros and wireless chips.  Theirs was probably the largest stand of any company involved in Bluetooth low energy, and strategically positioned on the main corridor through the “A” halls.  Pride of place at the front of the stand was given over to a live demonstration of their Bluetooth low energy chips sending data from low power temperature and humidity sensors.  It may not sound the most exciting demo in the world, but enabling wireless sensors is what Bluetooth low energy is all about.  Especially when you need them to run for years off a single coin cell.

Their transceiver chip – the EM9301 operates at voltage as low as 0.8V, with sub microAmp standby current.  Those are levels that make it useable for applications which are powered by energy harvesting devices. EM was also exhibiting a module based around that chip – the EM9301SA.  It’s around 15mm x 15mm, including a printed antenna.  They were also showing their development kit.

Nordic Semiconductor is another proprietary wireless company that has brought its expertise into the Bluetooth low energy community.  They were claiming that their solution, incorporating the nRF8001, will be fully qualified including the Generic Attribute Profile (GATT) and Generic Access Profile (GAP) in December.  They’re promoting this as a single chip solution which includes a micro for embedded applications.  They also have a low energy development kit, and have teamed up with Insight – the French module vendor, to produce a miniature module that is a mere 8mm x 12mm x 1.4mm.

CSR had examples of their CSR1000 and CSR1001 single mode chips, as well as their dual mode chip.  Their display included a development kit and a number of prototype boards demonstrating different applications.

TI were showing off their CC2540 SoC, designed for low energy devices.  The chip contains a complete Bluetooth low energy controller and host stack, with an 8051 and 128/256kB on chip flash, which can be used to develop embedded applications.  Like the other vendors, they have a development kit available to get designers started.  They also have a dual mode solution available in their Wi-Link combo chips.

A number of other silicon vendors told me that they have chips in development, which will be announced in 2011, so it looks as if we’ll have over a dozen chips to choose from by this time next year.

For small volume designs, and for companies that was to innovate or achieve fast time to market, modules are going to be an important way to get into Bluetooth low energy.  Whilst most of the module vendors are claiming to have low energy on their roadmap, two of them – BlueGiga and Panasonic were actively promoting their first products.

Panasonic’s PAN1720 module is based on the TI 2541 chip.  They’re already sampling key customers and claim that it will be widely available at the start of next year.  It’s 15.6mm x 8.7mm x 1.8mm, contains a ceramic antenna and initially supports battery and proximity profiles.

BlueGiga also have a TI based module.  They’ve taken an interesting approach of writing the full stack for themselves. (Most module vendors rely on a stack from the silicon provider.)  At the top end of the stack, they’ve defined an XML schema for profiles, which allows a developer to choose which profiles or characteristics they want to use, then compile that into an image which can be dropped into the module.  I look forward to playing with that – it sounds a very effective way of developing low energy applications.

The Bluetooth SIG was present to promote their ongoing “Innovation World Cup” championship.  This is a competition for designers to submit their best ideas for products that utilise Bluetooth low energy.  Nine of the finalists were on display in their booth, and were represented in a well attended afternoon of application discussions in the Electronica forum.  The range of finalists is wonderfully diverse, ranging from a cycle computer, through health applications to a barbecue grill thermometer.

Alongside the main exhibition, the annual Wireless Congress devoted a day to Bluetooth low energy.  Robin Heydon and I spent a morning running a technical training session on how to use Bluetooth low energy, before the delegates moved to a keynote on Bluetooth from Anders Edlund of the Bluetooth SIG, and an afternoon of talks on specific application areas, ranging from smart energy to automotive.

There was no doubt that the interest level in Bluetooth low energy has started to take off, as it moves firmly from speculation to reality.  The number of chips available, the advent of dev kits and modules, an enthusiastic audience for presentations and even two slots on the Electronica TV channel signal the fact that the technology is here.  By the time of the next Electronica in November 2012, analysts expect that over 100 million chips will have shipped.  If you want to be part of that growth, now is definitely the time to get involved and find out more.

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