Bluetooth Low Energy FAQ: The Ultimate Guide on BLE Devices & iBeacons
Content:
  • 1. 📚 General BLE facts
  • 2. ⚙️ BLE Technical Facts
  • 3. 🤖 BLE FAQ: Beacons and iBeacons
  • 4. 💡 Takeaways
  • Cover image by Andrew Rosek

    At first, Bluetooth was initiated as a short-range technology to replace cables and wires as a connection method. However, according to Statista the current number of shipped Bluetooth devices is not only presented in billions but is also growing continuously from year to year. Thus proving that the relevance of this technology is not going to leave global markets in near future.

    BLE ultimate guide development
    BLE Ultimate Guide (image by Andrew Rosek)

    Bluetooth as technology exists in two types:

    • Bluetooth Classic emphasizes continuous connections and transferring bigger amounts of data. In the product world, it’s represented by wireless speakers, headsets, and interactive car systems.
    • Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) emphasizes transferring lower amounts of data with lower energy consumption providing an increased battery level for IoT products and accessories. In practice, it’s represented by small sensors and products from various healthcare, fitness, and smart home systems.

    In this article, we will take a deeper look specifically at the basics of Bluetooth Low Energy, determine its technical characteristics, notice both advantages and limitations of BLE products, and provide the answers to the most frequently asked questions before integrating it into your project.



    📚 General BLE facts



    What is Bluetooth Low Energy?

    Bluetooth Low Energy is a wireless technology introduced in Bluetooth version 4.0, with the purpose of creating connections that compared to the Classic Bluetooth:

    • require lower power consumption;
    • require long battery life;
    • require lower cost;
    • operate with infrequent data transfers.



    What is Wibree?

    Wibree is a technology with extremely low power consumption and a 10-meter range which is known as the first version of modern Bluetooth Low Energy. In 2009 it was rebranded as Bluetooth Low Energy and still functions under this name.

    In IoT applications when it comes to transferring any sensor data from your wristband to a smartphone, BLE is the most suitable type of connection due to the following list of advantages
    Bluetooth of any type plays a crucial role in developing and connecting IoT applications (image by Josh Warren)



    The advantages of BLE

    • Accessibility. Nowadays almost every smartphone has an integrated BLE making its features wide open for every smartphone-like device owner. Besides, Bluetooth Low Energy is popular for integration in devices that don’t require any apps for maintaining quality connections with various products. Hence, its accessibility is not only defined by being integrated into smartphones and tablets.
    • Low power requirements. Along with sending small amounts of data, there’s another thing that lets BLE be the lowest power consumer amongst the candidates. Key optimization is achieved by keeping the signal transmission off whenever it’s not used.
    • Low elements cost. Among the BLE analogues the original technology boasts with low prices for chipsets, modules, and other components. Thus granting a low general cost for the development to surpass any competitor existing.
    • Free specification documents. The most notable advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy is that any specification document you may need can be easily found and downloaded from the official Bluetooth website. While some technologies require considerable payment for access to the documentation, BLE shows you that it is free to use for everyone.



    The limitations of BLE

    • Limited range. There are several factors that lead to BLE’s short range. First of all, the BLE frequency spectrum is vulnerable to the obstacles between the connected devices, making it yet impossible to implement connections exceeding 100 meters. And the other factor that complicates the long-range connections includes all the issues with a BLE antenna such as device orientation and physical location.
    • Low data rate. Bluetooth Low Energy can not be used to achieve data rates of more than 1 or 2 Mbps as, for example, cellular and wifi technologies can handle. One of the causes is the requirement of Bluetooth specification for a 150 ms gap between the packet transmission along with the transmission power being dependent on the connection range.
    A central device with internet connectivity is usually represented with a smartphone-like gadget to manage the incoming data.
    An example of BLE application to control heat level of the infra-heated vest (image by Ten Times Better)



    Are BLE and Classic Bluetooth devices compatible?

    Despite sharing the brand and specifications, Bluetooth Low Energy and Classic Bluetooth in fact are incompatible. It means that it’s impossible to set up direct communication between such two devices.



    Is there a way to make Classic Bluetooth and BLE compatible?

    To avoid compatibility issues many smartphone-like gadgets tend to implement both of these technologies thus enabling communication with every side. Smartphones with such Bluetooth chipsets are called **Dual Mode Bluetooth devices **and are able to work with both Bluetooth Low Energy and Bluetooth Classic.



    Which one is better: BLE or Bluetooth Classic?

    Technically it’s impossible to say which of the technologies is “better” or “worse” in general. The answer depends on your needs: whether you need to have a continuous connection, transmit large amounts of data, have the possibility to frequently recharge your device, etc.

    Let’s see some examples of goals and determine the technology that fits better in distinct cases:

    📱 Task examples 📳 Suitable technology
    Motion sensors BLE
    Wearable pedometers, heart rate monitors
    Baby monitors, small walkie-talkies
    Smart House sensors
    Smart sensors for cars
    Applications with a file-transferring feature Bluetooth Classic
    Applications with a quality audio streaming feature
    Wireless PC peripherals
    Printer-like peripheral machines



    What are the analogues of BLE?

    Just like any other technology in today’s vast tech world, there will always be competitors. A competitive factor not only opens up a wider set of options to choose from but also lets the technologies prosper and evolve more among the analogues.

    Competitive technologies:

    • Z-Wave. A wireless protocol that’s represented as a mesh network with low-energy radio waves primarily used for home automation.
    • ZigBee. A specification for creating personal area networks with the use of low-power radios. Presented as a mesh network, it’s responsible for low-power wireless connections in home automation and healthcare data management.
    • Thread. A low-power mesh networking protocol based on IPV6 for IoT products development. The main focus of this technology is providing outstanding security standards and being future-proof.



    ⚙️ BLE Technical Facts

    Frequency spectrum 2.4 GHz
    Minimal time to send data 6 ms
    Maximum radio data rate 2 Mbps (Bluetooth 5)
    Connection range Depends on environmental conditions, selected range mode, and used features. The regular range is 10-30 meters, however, under ideal conditions Bluetooth version 5 LE products may connect through about 400 meters
    Security In CCM mode - 128-bit AES
    Peak current consumption less than 15 mA
    Latency (non-connected -> connected state) 6 ms



    Are BLE versions backward compatible?

    Yes, Bluetooth Low Energy versions are backward compatible with each other. However, the features that were released in the newest versions won’t be supported by the older ones.

    As an example, a BLE device with a Bluetooth version 4.1 can easily be connected to a BLE device with Bluetooth version 5, yet without access to the newest features of the 5-th version.



    Can BLE products stream audio?

    BLE devices weren’t able to transmit audio before the release of the Bluetooth 5.2 update. With the use of custom implementations, there was a way to make audio streaming possible, however, it was never about achieving a good quality sound. After Bluetooth 5.2, audio transmitting finally became possible with many upgrades and specifications awaiting in the future.



    How to power BLE devices?

    Bluetooth Low Energy is a technology for maintaining connections with low power consumption, thus there are enough various sources to power such products. The most common power sources for BLE’s battery life are:

    • Coin Cell Batteries
    • Lithium Batteries
    • Rechargeable Lithium Batteries
    • Alkaline Batteries



    What certifications are required for BLE products?

    Considering that Bluetooth Low Energy radios in fact are Radio Frequency (RF) transceivers — the needed certifications depend on the country where the device is going to be used. Besides the certifications, it is also required to get an End Product Listing with the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (Bluetooth SIG). Some examples:

    • European Region — CE certification
    • Canada — IC certification
    • The US — FCC certification



    Is an app a necessity for BLE?

    Communicating and managing Bluetooth Low Energy products most of the time is maintained via the specialized Android or iPhone app. Thus, an app is the most common way for managing BLE connections, however, connecting devices directly is also practically possible. We at Stormotion experienced the development of a heart-rate sensor with a direct connection to an exercise machine.

    Read Also What to Consider when Integrating BLE in your React Native App



    How many devices can be connected to BLE simultaneously?

    As Bluetooth Low Energy based on a Master (Central) and Slave topology, a Master can create a connection with multiple peripherals simultaneously as well as be the Slave and the Master at the same time. A practical limit for the Central device — is supporting up to 20 peripherals connected.

    An application on a host device searches for any transmitted signal to create a connection with a BLE product
    An example of how a BLE device is connected to IoT applications (image by Adam Kalin)

    However, the practical number stated before only shows the BLE capabilities in general, but this limit may be different for some cases. It depends on the application-specific aspects that define the number of simultaneous connections in particular cases. Such aspects are primarily:

    • the limits set by the Physical layer (the controller itself);
    • limitations of the host OS.

    Experimentally it was determined that a Samsung Galaxy S9 as a BLE Central can support up to 8 simultaneously connected devices. While the iPhone 8, for example, managed to connect up to 10 such products.

    According to [Microsoft Q&A, when it comes to connecting Bluetooth Low Energy to Windows it works as follows:

    1. BLE devices in connections have three different activity statuses: “paired”, “connected” and “transmitting”. A device can have one, two or three active statuses at the same time. For example, it can be paired and connected but not transmitting or can simultaneously be paired connected and transmitting.
    2. The devices in terms of communication can be hosts and clients. For example, speaking about connecting wireless peripheral devices to a PC, the first ones act as clients and the PC itself represents the host side.
    3. Host devices are able to support up to 7 products with a “connected” status and as many as needed “paired” devices.
    4. Client devices play a peripheral role and support only 1 connection and up to 5 “paired” devices.



    🤖 BLE FAQ: Beacons and iBeacons



    What is a BLE beacon?

    Bluetooth beacons are a type of Bluetooth Low Energy device that is presented as a hardware transmitter. The main point of such beacons is to broadcast their identifier to various smartphone-like devices within a close range to take control of them and perform actions like launching an app, opening an information page, or sending a notification.

    With the help of beacons it is possible to calculate the range from a signal transmitter to different access points within seconds
    An appearance of beacons presented by Estimote (image by Estimote)



    What is an iBeacon?

    iBeacon is an Apple protocol based on BLE proximity sensing that possesses a set of features similar to a Bluetooth-labeled brother.



    What is the difference between a BLE beacon and an iBeacon?

    Practically, to send information about the distance between connected products to a device, iOS delivers the actual calculated distance, while Bluetooth Low Energy relies on the RSSI signal strength. Thus, in an iOS case, the estimated distance won’t depend on the device manufacturer and will be equal regardless of the device version.

    It’s amazing to see that such a smart device needs nothing more than a battery and a circuit to function
    The “inner world” of the beacons presented by Estimote (image by Estimote)



    How do BLE Beacons work?

    Let’s introduce ourselves to a Beacon world step-by-step:

    1. There is a small device called “Beacon” that is constantly transmitting radio signals.
    2. Devices nearby (smartphones, tablets, etc.) supported by Bluetooth Low Energy detect the transmitted signal.
    3. The signal gives your device its ID number, saying “Here I am!”.
    4. Your device sends the ID it got earlier to the cloud server.
    5. The server processes the given ID and determines what action lays behind the assigned number and responds according to the scenario.
    6. The result could be any action pre-programmed before!



    BLE Beacon use cases

    Beacons are quite useful things that can serve as an informational source or even attract potential customers. Here are some examples of how beacons are used in the modern world:

    • In museums and galleries beacons serve as an extended information source. While you're standing next to a famous painting, your device catches a signal from the closest beacon and, for example, opens a page devoted to the history of the artist and his creation.
    • In retail beacons often serve as a notificator about the most interesting deals and discounts. While passing by a store your device catches the signal of a shop’s beacon and transfers you to a page with the newest collections and available disсounts.
    • In educational facilities beacons also serve as a notificator about the upcoming events, conferences, holidays, etc. Once again your device receives a signal with a pre-programmed announcement and grants access to a page with the approaching educational activities listed in one place.
    BLE beacons are the next step for the evolution of promotion and marketing
    Notifications created by beacons’ continuous signal transmissions (image by Asha Rajput)



    💡 Takeaways

    As the topic of BLE products is getting more relevant throughout the years, with the rise of interest there also rises the urge to answer all the frequently asked questions regarding the technology again and again. We at Stormotion tried our best to provide answers to the most common questions in terms of Bluetooth Low Energy and products supported by this technology.

    If you have any questions or need any help with integrating Bluetooth Low Energy into your project, let us know. We will be happy to help you meet your business needs with a stunning BLE product!

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