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What is the difference between BLE and Bluetooth?

With the increasing commonality of wearable tech and in-home devices that communicate with one another, Bluetooth has become more important than ever. While “Bluetooth” has, at this point, become a word ingrained in everyone’s vernacular, many don’t realize that there are different types of Bluetooth. Defining the differences of Bluetooth low energy vs Bluetooth may become more and more relevant to various industries, including robotics.  

What is Bluetooth Low Energy? 

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), also known as Bluetooth Smart, is designed for wireless short-range communication between devices. It's often used in applications that require less energy, like wearable technology, smart home devices, fitness trackers, and other IoT (Internet of Things) devices. 

Bluetooth Low Energy Features: 

  • Low Power Consumption: BLE is optimized to use less energy, making it ideal for battery-operated devices. A device with BLE can typically operate for months or even years on a small coin-cell battery. 
  • Short Range: Like traditional Bluetooth, BLE is designed for short-range communication typically within 100 meters (about the height of the Statue of Liberty), but the range can be extended or reduced. 
  • Compatibility: BLE is compatible with a vast number of smartphones, tablets, and computers. Since 2010, most smartphones and tablets have been manufactured with chipsets that can handle both classic Bluetooth and BLE. 
  • Applications: BLE has been widely adopted in various apps like heart rate monitors and fitness devices, among others. 
  • Security: BLE incorporates security measures such as pairing methods and 128-bit encryption to secure data transfer between devices. 

What are the Differences Between Bluetooth Low Energy and Classic Bluetooth? 

BLE and Classic Bluetooth both provide wireless communication, but they differ in several key spots. 

Classic Bluetooth is designed for continuous, robust connections, making it better suited for things like streaming audio to headphones or speakers. It supports higher data rates but requires more power.  

On the other hand, BLE is designed to consume less power and operate over long periods—months to years. It's tailored for applications that require small, periodic transfers of data. 

While both support short-range communication, the range can differ based on the power levels they use. Classic Bluetooth typically handles longer distances and more substantial data packets compared to BLE. 

BLE isn't a replacement for classic Bluetooth, but rather a complementary technology that excels in different applications due to its lower power consumption and efficient data transmission capabilities. 

When Does BLE Work Better? 

Overall, the choice between BLE and Classic Bluetooth is determined by specific use-cases. Here are some common items that tend to use Bluetooth Smart more than Classic Bluetooth: 

  • Fitness Trackers: Devices like Fitbit send occasional updates to smartphones using BLE. 
  • Smart Home Devices: Nest thermostats, smart lightbulbs, and other home IoT devices opt for BLE for longevity. 
  • Wearable Medical Devices: The necessity for this type of tech to last longer is crucial. So, items like blood pressure or glucose monitors tend to use BLE more often. 
  • Smart Watches: When your Apple Watch pairs with your smartphone? That’s thanks to BLE. 

Why Classic Bluetooth is More Common? 

Bluetooth technology has been around longer and is commonly associated with devices and applications, such as wireless headphones, speakers, and car audio systems, which primarily focus on audio streaming and file transfers. These applications are often consumer-facing, making Classic Bluetooth much more identifiable. 

Bluetooth Low Energy, on the other hand, was introduced as part of the Bluetooth 4.0 standard in 2010. While it's gaining recognition, its applications are less visible to the average user. However, as the use of wearable tech and smart home devices expands, awareness of BLE should increase. 

BLE in Robotics 

Bluetooth Low Energy can be leveraged in various ways in the field of robotics, ranging from simple remote-control operations to complex swarm coordination. Robotics and Bluetooth Smart (BLE) often blend in these areas: 

  • Remote Controls: BLE can be used to create a wireless control system for robots. You can use a smartphone or a tablet as a remote control, providing commands to a robot over a BLE connection. This is particularly popular in educational settings and for programmable robots like Sphero’s! 
  • Sensor Data Collection: Robots often have a multitude of sensors (temperature, proximity, light, etc.). BLE can be used to wirelessly transmit this data to a central device or computer for processing and decision-making. This allows the robot to react to its environment. 
  • Localization and Navigation: BLE beacons can be used to help robots navigate. By triangulating the signal strength from multiple fixed beacons, a robot can estimate its position and adjust its course as needed. 
  • Inter-Robot Communication: In swarm robotics, where multiple robots work together to achieve a task, BLE can be used to facilitate communication between individual robots. Although not dependent on BLE, this type of robot-to-robot communication can be modeled by sending IR messages between Sphero BOLT or RVR+ robots. Try this activity in the Sphero Edu app to learn more about IR Communication. 
  • Real-Time Monitoring and Debugging: During the development and testing of robots, BLE can provide a convenient way to monitor the robot's internal state in real time and transmit debugging information. 

Distinguishing Between BLE and Bluetooth 

Understanding the differences between Bluetooth Low Energy and Classic Bluetooth helps choose the appropriate technology for a specific application, ensuring efficient performance and optimal power management. 

While both largely accomplish the same ability to wirelessly send and receive data, devices that need to operate for longer and don’t need to send constant information will likely operate via BLE. Think about your daily step goals, you don’t need your devices to report every time you take a step, but you would still like to have that data to be collected throughout your day. Conversely, things like headphones will be more of a Classic Bluetooth device, because while it does require a high energy output you need constant delivery of data. Why? Because who wants to listen to quick snippets of their favorite songs every couple of minutes?  

Bluetooth Low Energy and Classic Bluetooth are both valuable technologies that won’t change anytime soon. Although BLE is a newer tech it is not designed to replace Bluetooth. Look for both to continue their reach into a variety of our daily devices and tools.   

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