Technology Refresher: ZigBee and the Smart Home

By Cees Links, GreenPeak Technologies. Worldwide, the smart home device/home automation market is growing rapidly. According to a 2013 report from Nextmarket Insights, the current home automation systems and services market is about US$3.6 billion and is forecast to grow to around US$15 billion by 2017. Why is this happening now after years of promises and hype about the smart home? The world's leading cable MSOs (Multiple System Operators), broadband service providers and telcos have recognised the potential of the home services market, and are starting to offer a wide variety of new home automation and connected home services. These include home health monitoring, home security, temperature monitoring and control, remote locking and unlocking of doors and windows, turning lights off and on, water and gas leak monitoring, etc. Standardised Wireless Communication The technologies that enable the home services space have essentially existed for many years, but until recently, their use has mostly been restricted to those early innovators who were willing to go the extra distance to make the various disparate services, hardware and components function together. However, with the emergence and global acceptance of the ZigBee communication standard, there is finally a standardised wireless communication technology that enables easy installation and communication between the various devices and applications. [caption id="attachment_4532" align="aligncenter" width="363"] ZigBee is designed to allow easy installation and wireless communication between various devices and applications.[/caption] This is very similar to what occurred with Wi-Fi. At first, there was a variety of incompatible technologies that were battling to be the accepted technology for wireless networking, but eventually a single worldwide standard emerged - 802.11 - that enabled various industries to start developing and manufacturing products that not only could talk to each other, but would operate worldwide. This is also what is happening now with ZigBee for the smart home. The Difference Between ZigBee and Wi-Fi ZigBee can be considered as the low-power version of Wi-Fi. ZigBee uses a similar radio technology, operates in the same 2.4GHz range, transmits through walls, floors and furniture and can cover a good sized home. The big difference is data rate and power requirements. Whereas Wi-Fi is optimised for high data rates however, ZigBee is optimised for small bits of information. Wi-Fi is very effective for transmitting video, music, and voice throughout the home, while ZigBee is optimised for carrying very small on and off messages from sensors. So even though ZigBee has the same basic range and performance as Wi-Fi, because it carries so much less information, it requires much less power to operate. [caption id="attachment_4531" align="aligncenter" width="500"] ZigBee requires 1/10,000 or less of the power required for Wi-Fi.[/caption] Setting up a ZigBee Network Like Wi-Fi, setting up a ZigBee network should be easy. With a battery embedded inside, all the consumer has to do is to turn it on and let the network find the new device for pairing. Of course, depending on the device and its function, there might be some kind of configuration process or online web dashboard to facilitate programming and setting up the device to work the way the user wants. The point is that the communication process with the existing home ZigBee network will be seamless and almost automatic, in the same way that hooking up a new Wi-Fi device to your home network is today. Low Power Because of ZigBee's low power requirement, there are a variety of devices that will not require any power source at all. Light switches, already on the market, are a good example. By flicking the on/off button on the switch, a tiny amount of power is produced. This small amount of power is enough to send a simple on/off signal from the switch across the room to a lamp with a ZigBee receiver, turning the light on or off. Of course, the switch signal could also transmit to the home's central set top box or home control unit, controlling multiple lights and even other devices, as programmed by the homeowner. [caption id="attachment_4533" align="aligncenter" width="600"] Using ZigBee, a wide variety of smart home sentroller devices will not only talk to each other, but to the end users via a remote control, web interface and/or smart phone.[/caption] Conclusion With Comcast in the USA and other cable operators leading the way, almost all operators have decided to embrace ZigBee and are starting to roll out set top boxes with ZigBee radio chips inside. Even though many of the first-generation boxes are primarily using ZigBee to provide a reliable and robust connection for local remote controls, the ZigBee connection also serves as the means for adding many other smart home and connected devices. Once the ZigBee network is firmly entrenched in homes worldwide, the next surge will occur as device makers begin to embed ZigBee in a diverse spectrum of edge devices, appliances and sentrollers. Cees Links is the Founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, a rapidly-growing smart home radio communications semiconductor company. Under his responsibility, the first wireless LANs were developed, ultimately becoming household technology integrated into PCs and notebooks. Cees Links was involved in the establishment of the IEEE 802.11 standardisation committee and the Wi-Fi Alliance, and was instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardisation committee to become the basis for the ZigBee sense and control networking. Comments on this article are welcome. See below.

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