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Add Bluetooth 5 to Raspberry Pi 3 or create gadgets with this new chip

One of Raspberry Pi's weaknesses is a lack of wireless technologies, which limits its communications capabilities with other devices. One new chipset from Qualcomm could help fill that gap.

The QCA4020 chipset packs in Bluetooth Low Energy 5, ZigBee 3.0, WiFi 802.11n, and OpenThread wireless communications protocols.

The chipset is like a mini-developer board -- an integrated chipset with an ARM-based CPU. It can be used to create smart home or industrial devices.

It can also serve as a wireless access point for Raspberry Pi and other developer boards used to make smart gadgets, drones, robots, and industrial devices. It has a number of connector protocols and can work with Arduino boards.

It'll work right out of the box, and gadget development is easy, said Joseph Bousaba, vice president of product management at Qualcomm.

The chipset can talk with devices based on Apple HomeKit, Windows 10 IoT Core, and other software stacks.

"We are trying to make it as simple as possible to connect no matter what the radio is," Bousaba said. 

A unique feature allows the QCA4020 to open simultaneous communication channels so a gadget can broadcast data to multiple devices using different wireless technologies.

It can also work with multiple cloud solutions like Amazon's AWS, Alibaba, and Microsoft Azure. Qualcomm provides a software-based "cloud agent" that acts as an interface to connect to these cloud services, Bousaba said.

The product announcement comes ahead of Mobile World Congress, where Qualcomm will demonstrate its latest wireless technologies and chips like the Snapdragon 835. The chipset will ship internationally, though specifics about the country, date, and price will become available in the coming weeks.

The QCA4020 is one of the first development micro-boards based on new Bluetooth 5 protocol, which is two times faster and has quadruple the range of Bluetooth 4.2. Bluetooth 5 can transfer data at speeds of up to 2Mbps (bits per second) and has a range of more than 100 meters.

One of the advantages of Bluetooth 5 is its ability to operate a mesh of devices, with the ability to broadcast data from one device to many. That helps implement an entire network of smart home devices communicating in real time, Bousaba said.

That wasn't possible with previous versions of Bluetooth, Bousaba said.

For example, once a user enters a home, a Bluetooth 5 digital lock can transmit data simultaneously to switch on the smart lights and heating system.

The QCA4020 chipset is also one of the few boards supporting OpenThread, which is an open-source take on Google's emerging Thread protocol. It is an adaptation from ZigBee, with a software stack that enables IP-based communication capabilities.

The QCA4020 has an integrated Cortex-M4 processor operating at 150Mhz, making it similar to Texas Instruments' $29 Launchpad Board and Nordic's nRF52840 Preview Development Kit, both of which have Bluetooth 5. But those boards don't include the wide range of radios like on Qualcomm's chipset.

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