The synergy of cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE -

The synergy of cellular IoT and Bluetooth LE


Cellular IoT (CIoT) is a topic that the staff has covered in detail for the past few years, with articles that educated readers about how to begin working with LTE-M and NB-IoT as well as commentaries about how quickly the adoption curve will be for cellular IoT. That latter article cites a projection that there will be five billion CIoT devices in the next five years – a staggering number given how long cellular was a niche connectivity technology for IoT deployments. The release of low-power versions of the cellular specification changed all of that, paving the way for the kind of growth predicted in that Ericsson research report.

The ubiquity of cell infrastructure and the extraordinary power efficiency qualities of the LTE-M and NB-IoT low-power cellular IoT specifications make them compelling options for product engineers. But most of what has been written on this topic so far looks at LTE-M and NB-IoT in a vacuum in order to compare and contrast against other wireless technologies. I feel strongly that the benefits of the two CIoT specifications are even more compelling when you combine LTE-M and NB-IoT with other technologies.

For this article, I will specifically discuss why engineers should look at combining LTE-M and NB-IoT with Bluetooth Low Energy (LE), creating a combination of technologies whose impact is greater than the sum of the parts.

Before I dive into that, though, let’s look at the qualities of LTE-M and NB-IoT that make them so desirable for these types of devices and networks. Unlike the always-on, battery-guzzling architecture of the version of cellular that is used by phones and tablets, LTE-M and NB-IoT were designed very purposefully for use in IoT deployments, with battery-sipping capabilities that give them projected battery life of 10 years or more. And their use of cell networks for data transfer means that there is a pre-existing infrastructure for CIoT anywhere  there is LTE service. For those of you who want a deeper dive into those benefits and capabilities, see this white paper I co-authored with a colleague here at Laird Connectivity.

Combining technologies

Cellular IoT technology has a long list of advantages on its own, but the key point I’d like to make to product engineers reading this article is that CIoT is even more powerful, flexible and compelling when combined with Bluetooth. To illustrate how the technologies could be paired, think of cellular gateways that take advantage of the ubiquity of cell infrastructure connected with Bluetooth-enabled devices that take advantage of Bluetooth’s battery efficiency, reliability and other desirable capabilities. This enables energy-efficient, low-cost, battery-powered Bluetooth devices to use nearly-ubiquitous cellular infrastructure for data transfer – a scenario that has compelling use cases across a wide range of industries, including two I discuss below.

But there are other advantages to combining CIoT and Bluetooth. Combining Bluetooth with CIoT makes it possible for engineers to add mesh capabilities to their networks while still utilizing cell towers as the backhaul infrastructure. Combining these two technologies also gives engineers the flexibility to architect the sensors to achieve the lowest energy consumption they need for a given application, while still supporting an aggregator device that is connected to the cloud. This combination of CIoT and Bluetooth also makes it possible for engineers to do creative network deployments involving coin cells and local wireless networks at the remote sensor node level.

Rather than having a dry discussion of features of the combined technologies, though, I think the possibilities are even more evident when discussing use cases. Below are two applications that would not be possible or practical without the combination of low-power cellular and Bluetooth technologies. My hope is that this not only illustrates how impactful the two technologies can be when combined, but also spark additional use case ideas in readers that go beyond what I have sketched out here.

Remote healthcare

The first use case I’ll discuss involves remote patient monitoring and telehealth, which has become a vital link between patients and doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical practices have increased their usage of remote patient monitoring devices this year in order to gather patient information that would ordinarily be taken in the doctor’s office. Using these wireless devices – including blood pressure monitors, scales and pedometers – allows doctors to closely monitor patients’ health data without requiring patients to have an in-person appointment.

For patients with mobility challenges or who are in high-risk categories for COVID-19, this allows doctors to provide effective telehealth for patients with the same information that would be at their fingertips with an in-person appointment. The Bluetooth-enabled devices are shipped to a patient’s home along with a cellular gateway that is simple to set up. Data from the health devices are sent via Bluetooth signal to the gateway, which uses ubiquitous cellular connectivity to transmit the health information via a secure, HIPAA-compliant connection to the medical practice’s IT system. Doctors and nurses then access the information to guide the medical decisions they make about the patient and the discussions they have via telehealth appointments. CIoT and Bluetooth make this application with Bluetooth-enabled health devices that have long battery lives and reliability connectivity in the patient’s home, and secure transfer of data to the medical practice through the cellular-enabled gateways.

Cold chain monitoring

Another use case that illustrates the power of these combined technologies is cold chain monitoring, which is critical to ensuring the quality and safety of food as it makes its way from farms to tables. A combination of cellular IoT and Bluetooth-enabled sensors can be used to monitor food temperatures across every stage in the supply chain. Bluetooth wireless sensors attached to produce or meat or dairy deliveries can monitor temperature from the food processing center, through the transportation process in delivery trucks and all the way to destinations like restaurants and supermarkets – delivering data each time that the sensors connect with cellular gateways. The low-cost Bluetooth sensors combined with strategically-placed cellular gateways ensures that food remains in the appropriate temperature ranges in ways that would not be possible or not be as cost-effective with other wireless technologies.

As a postscript to both of the use cases above, I should also mention that cellular IoT could also play a significant role in maintaining the very precise cold chain environment that is needed for COVID-19 vaccine distribution not only domestically in the U.S. but also globally where supply chain logistics are often even more complex. The ubiquity of cell infrastructure globally provides a global platform for monitoring temperature wirelessly alongside the other wireless technologies that will be used for location tracking. This combination of technologies can ensure the effective delivery of temperature-sensitive vaccines, not only for worldwide delivery of approved COVID-19 vaccines but also for a variety of other vaccines aimed at improving public health around the world.

These use cases are just scratching the surface of the applications across multiple industries that are possible when Bluetooth complements low-power cellular technology.

Jonathan Kaye is the Senior Director of Product Management at Laird Connectivity. In this role at the company, Kaye is a lead developer of Laird Connectivity’s embedded wireless connectivity solutions. He has more than 20 years of experience in the embedded wireless and product design field, including positions at EZURiO and Lever Technology before joining Laird Connectivity a decade ago.

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