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ZigBee: THE standard for smart home applications?

Woman using a Smart Energy Controller Source: iStock/Thomas_EyeDesign

The Smart Home, a long standing promise for over 30 years, is becoming a reality today. ZigBee has developed as the wireless communication technology of choice. Actually, ZigBee is the low-power wireless technology that complements WiFi technology to make our homes smarter, safer, more comfortable and energy efficient. Let me elaborate, why we at GreenPeak Technologies are convinced that ZigBee will be a crucial element of smart homes.

But before we start: What is this much talked about Smart Home, which tech-evangelists have been promising for many, many years? It is the automated home with devices that talk to each other and that can be controlled from a home dashboard or with a smart phone over the internet. But until recently, the Smart Home always stayed upscale market or was the playground for a few hobbyists and early innovators.

The potential for mass market home automation has been recognized for a long time, and finally today we are witnessing the beginning of that new era with many large operators, service providers and utilities launching Smart Home applications. These can be managed via set-top box or gateway via the web, allowing subscribers to convert their households into state-of-the-art machines that can be monitored and controlled  from anywhere in the world via smart phones, tablets or mobile devices.

The Smart Home is not built overnight

My experience shows, that a Smart Home will not be built overnight, but it will arrive in phases. Operators are starting to offer Smart Home applications as additional service to their current offering of TV, phone services, internet and entertainment; their customers can chose from applications that are tailored to their specific needs. A single home owner has different requirements to make his home smarter than elderly people or a family with children. These applications can check and control “things at home” such as temperature control (changing the setting of the thermostat), security (making sure that doors are locked), alarm systems (sensors and cameras) or energy management (e.g. lighting controls) and health and status monitoring of elderly people. To have all these different applications interoperable, they all need to be able to communicate with each other.

living rool smartphone app explaining zigbee Source: Greenpeak
Smart Homes have finally become a reality and are founded on a symbiosis of applications allowing home owners to monitor and control applications for improved energy efficiency, access control, security, home monitoring and home care.

Why do we need industry standards?

Think of our own home: many of our home electronic devices, sensors and appliances exist on isolated islands, disconnected from the internet and unable to see or talk to each other. This has been a major obstacle for Smart Home adoption. The first requirements for Smart Home applications is to make them wireless (ease of installation) and maintenance-free (no battery replacement).

The wireless residential applications prosper best within the context of open communication standards, and offer OEMs the freedom to purchase from a large pool of suppliers and, most importantly, allow devices from different vendors to interoperate, which is paramount in the market success of integrated Smart Home applications and will increase customer adoption when consumers can buy devices from different brands.

The interoperability offered by ZigBee allows for all Smart Home applications to operate under the same open ZigBee communication standard. The different sensor applications and the devices they control are integrated and link their intelligence to create what I like to call the “Really Smart Home” which now no longer needs human intervention. This Really Smart Home integrates all applications and the intelligence behind it in one application layer, where the same motion sensor used in the security system to trigger an alarm, is also integrated in the light control and HVAC system that switches off the lights and the heating when nobody is in a room.

ZigBee or WiFi?

For the home environment, the immediate question is: Which networking will be best used in the home? One may think that WiFi and ZigBee are competing with each other. The reality, however, is that both technologies have their own place.

WiFi (based on IEEE 802.11) has been developed with a focus on a high speed data rate (100 Mb/s and beyond) to optimize the distribution of content through the home: from browsing the internet to downloading movies. WiFi connected devices are typically connected to the mains power and energy consumption has only been a secondary criterion.

ZigBee (based on IEEE 802.15.4) is complementary to WiFi: developed for sense and control networks, where battery life was the primary development factor; therefore the battery life of ZigBee devices can easily be measured in multiple years, or even exceeds the life time of the device it is used in. This is all in contrast to the battery life of even “energy efficient” WiFi implementations, usually expressed in weeks or months.

With its comparable indoor range ZigBee is the low-power version of WiFi and for me it is the clear technology of choice for Smart Home applications.

From the Smart Home to the Internet of Things

I consider ZigBee as the crucial enabler for the development of the Internet of Things. Most of the end-nodes on the internet today are people using PCs, laptops and smart phones. However this is rapidly changing as many more devices in the home are getting connected to the internet, building the Smart Home, and starting to shift the balance away from people towards connected things. These devices (“sentrollers”) are usually sensors, controllers, actuators or combinations. For instance: a thermostat senses the temperature, essentially “sentrols” it, via its communication with a higher layer control system that is also connected with other systems, knowing the time of day, the outside temperature, etc. The Smart Home will accelerate the use of sentrollers beyond the home as well: in building automation, for the smart grid, and from there in logistical, industrial and agricultural applications.

Just like WiFi was a real milestone in starting the use of internet at home, ZigBee will be the trigger point for the Internet of Things, starting at home as well and enabling the next wave in the ongoing technology revolution.

More information on smart home and standards

Standards: smart home using OSGi.

The future of OSGi in the Internet of Things.

Here to stay: the smart home needs standards.