Wireless has been shaped by three major technological breakthroughs in the last 15 years: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Low-Power Wi-Fi, and lower-consumptive cellular technology (specifically, two branches: LTE Cat M1 and LTE Narrow Band IoT).
How Wireless Technology Has Experienced (And Continues to) Change
Lucas Marshall, M.A. | Milwaukee Tool
Wireless technology has changed dramatically over the past few decades and continues to evolve.
Jonny Lienau, who’s spent the last 15 years in the industry as an electrical engineering leader, has experienced this shift firsthand.
Lienau’s resume is impressive: Undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from Marquette University where he focused on electromagnetic—“which is really just RF,” he tells me—with classes in antenna design, wireless communications, and theory gave him a fundamental understanding of the physics of wireless communication.
Six years’ work experience for the wireless design center at LS Research (now known as Laird) helped Lienau hone his expertise and become an expert in antenna design and wireless design. There, Lienau designed wireless headsets, wi-fi thermostats, wireless pacemakers, and other wireless products for a wide variety of companies. “I learned a lot of the regulations and, by the time I left there, I was leading a lot of the technical projects and a lot of the big customers that would come, like Siemens, GE to DeWalt,” he recalls. Describing his tenure there, he discusses working with several wireless technologies: “Wi-fi, Bluetooth, GPS, lower frequency called the ISM band at like 900 megahertz, 88, like 865. Even lower frequency stuff for medical applications, at 433 megahertz, NFC, and RFID.”
“I'd be doing a design entirely myself,” he expounds. “So, that was about 72 different wireless products and designs I worked on in 6-year timeframe, which is just a massive amount of experience,” Lienau remembers, adding, “I mean, you don't really get that volume [working in-house for a large company].” Since then, Lienau spent two and a half years at Harley-Davidson, where he worked on the company’s infotainment units embedded in large touring motorcycles, as well as overseeing software updates and upgrades to GPS and the Bluetooth systems on these bikes. He also oversaw the of Harley’s Bluetooth headsets and then kicked off the extra architecture and preliminary design of their cellular system. This cellular system is now present in their electric motorcycles.
This systems role at Harley-Davidson, developing cellular connectivity for tracking, came in handy as Lienau shifted to his role at Milwaukee Tool, where he’s his spent the past five years—first as a Senior and then Principal design engineer and then as an engineering manager—investigating and designing for applications including Bluetooth, cellular, and GPS connectivity. Leading the platform IoT team, he’s instrumental as a technical leader to our connected smart tool product development teams and ONE-KEY™, the company’s connectivity platform.
Johnny Lienau, Senior Electrical Engineering Manager, Milwaukee Tool
At Milwaukee Tool, Lienau and I have collaborated on products like our recent Bluetooth Tracking Tag. Together, we’ve also broken down how technical concepts for contractors, like how 5G and accelerometers can be applied to the equipment tracking space.
Here’s how Lienau sees wireless technology is evolving:
How Wireless Technology Has Changed
Lienau believes wireless has been shaped by three major technological breakthroughs in the last 15 years: Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Low-Power Wi-Fi, and lower-consumptive cellular technology (specifically, two branches: LTE Cat M1 and LTE Narrow Band IoT).
1. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)
Early Bluetooth technology, known as Bluetooth Classic, was primarily used for audio—streaming audio and headsets.
A newer form of Bluetooth, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), “didn’t exist” when Lienau first started in the industry, some 15 years ago.
BLE is renowned for having, as its name suggests, low energy consumption. It achieves this generally by “entering sleep mode most of the time” and “only waking up when the device when activity occurs.” Mesh networking, a recent development of BLE, supports the creation of “large-scale device networks […] widely used as a device positioning technology to address the increasing demand for high accuracy indoor location services.” This technology is helpful to determine the presence, distance, and direction of other “nearby” devices and can be used to locate lost keys; find misplaced tools on jobsites; as well as to turn on and optimize HVAC settings, smart speaker EQs—the sky’s the limit.
BLE has enabled the mass proliferation of Bluetooth in our lives—smartwatches and smart devices (e.g., Amazon Alexa, Google Home, Apple HomePod, etc.) are powered by BLE.
Seeing this proliferation, Lienau explains, has been “a cool development, Bluetooth [going] from a high bandwidth pipe for audio and then the standards group revamped to be super low energy and optimized for like sensors and intermittent data transmission.”
“Wi-Fi has been going through a similar transition,” Lienau explains.
When we think of Classic Wi-Fi, we think: Computer or TV connects to a router.
Over the last five years with the proliferation of smart home, “that’s pushed the industry to create low-power wi-fi.” Traditional wi-fi, after all, is power-hungry.
“If you think of battery applications, like your Ring® doorbell—that’s a doorbell that just has a battery in it, and they want that to run for a very long period of time,” explains Lienau.
New Wi-Fi applications for your home, discerns Lienau, talk the Wi-Fi router all the time, but they don’t need to pump massive amounts of data, similar to Bluetooth low energy. “A lot of these Wi-Fi applications at your home just occasionally need to exchange a little bit of data with your router, so the industry, over the last five years, has developed completely new standards for Wi-Fi and new Wi-Fi chips from the ground up that are extremely low power.”
Wi-fi technology, Lienau relays, has diverged into two branches: 1) High-speed Wi-Fi for computers and streaming, and 2) a whole new branch of Wi-Fi with new hardware designed specifically for low-power intermittent data.
Similar to Wi-Fi, cellular traditionally has been used primarily for voice communications.
Then, the advent of smartphones facilitated access to YouTube, music, and streaming right from a smartphone, requiring “a big data pipe, and lots of energy.”
More recently, the industry has developed low-power cellular smart sensors—to achieve similar technological breakthroughs as Bluetooth Low Eneergy and low-energy wi-fi, both which are designed for low-power intermittent data.
Offering examples, Lienau says, “Maybe I want to track cattle, or I track my sheep I don't need this massive data connection. I just want my little cellular tracker on my sheep to touch base two or three times a day.”
This sample use case has led to a big expansion of power cellular called LTE Cat M1 and LTE narrow band IoT, the two cellular technologies that have come out in the last several years geared toward low power meant to be run 10 years of battery life on an A2 amp hour battery.
Explaining just how innovative these low-power technologies are to cellular, Lienau describes, “Just incredibly low power, meant for asset tracking, whether it's livestock, cars, bicyclists, your smartwatches, thermostats—anything that you might want to be connected to a cellular network, that just occasionally needs to exchange data.”
Technologies Expected to Evolve
Lienau believes there’s great promise for additional development in cellular technology in the years that lie ahead, as well as in two other wireless branches: Ultra-wideband and Bluetooth HADM (High Accuracy Distance Measurement).
“I think we'll see a lot more cellular connected products and the next 5 to 8 years with low power cellular stuff,” Lienau remarked. “The narrow band IoT, I think we're going to start to see a lot more stuff that's cellular connected.”
Ultra-wideband is a positioning, location technology that allows for data transfer that spreads radio energy over a very wide frequency band, with a very low power spectral density.
“There’s a real opportunity for [ultrawide-band,” says Lienau, explaining: “It's already in a lot of automotive – that's like how your vehicle tells if your keys are inside your car, outside your car.”
iPhone and Samsung are already Ultra-wideband in their smartphones, Lienau adds.
He also thinks we’ll see ultra-wideband for security to, for example, in smart home settings to unlock the door of your house as you approach it. The same proximity-based security will likely be applied in automotive settings as well.
3. Bluetooth HADM (High Accuracy Distance Measurement)
Lienau says that you may think of Bluetooth HADM—which stands for high accuracy distance measurement—as “Bluetooth’s competitor answer to ultra-wideband.”
“It does a similar thing in that it’ll a position in technology for Bluetooth,” says Lienau. “So, I think we'll see positioning technologies for the Bluetooth as well start to really show up in the next decade.”
“Customers have been asking for years is, ‘Hey, can you tell me exactly where my thing is?’” Lienau explains. “So, whether it's something in a manufacturing line, something on a jobsite, something at grocery store, even as simple as, ‘Where is Johnny standing on the grocery aisle?’ So I can send him coupons right to his phone for the box of Cheeze-Its!.’”
“Whatever really cracks all this location and stuff and comes out with products, is it's going to be a gold mine for inventory management at places like Walmart and Target,” Lienau remarks.
First, the industry saw Bluetooth low energy that facilitated intermittent data transmission in Bluetooth settings. Then, companies challenged themselves to figure out how energy-consumptive wi-fi technology could be reengineered for low-power data transmission. Then, the industry applied the same challenge to cellular technology.
“Positioning technologies,” Lienau explains, “specifically indoor positioning technologies and ultra-wideband and Bluetooth HADM—I think will be interesting to see over the next decade.”
About Lucas Marshall, M.A.
Lucas Marshall, M.A. is a professional writer and digital strategist whose work has appeared in ForConstructionPros, IoT For All, Robotics Tomorrow, Geo Week News, PM Times, and Construction Business Owner, among others. At Milwaukee Tool, he’s responsible for developing helpful content for the building trades and manages the team’s Connectivity Blog.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow
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