It's happened. The event upon which rosy projections of wireless sensor growth is based—completion of the ZigBee spec—has taken place. If the futurists and market researchers are right, we're about to rocket up the hockey-stick slope to wireless utopia.
In compliance with the time schedule established many months ago, the ZigBee Alliance (www.zigbee.org) ratified the first ZigBee specification for wireless data communications in December. ZigBee is the only standards-based technology designed specifically to enable low-cost, low-power, wireless sensor networks. The spec finalization is the culmination of two years of worldwide development and interoperability testing by the more than 100 member companies within the ZigBee Alliance, and it promises to make wireless sensing and control networks a widespread reality.
Companies that previously released ZigBee-ready products will now be able to have their products tested for ZigBee-compliant certification. Meanwhile, the Alliance will continue to validate the specification through expanded interoperability and scalability tests, and future enhancements.
Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, noted that the impact will be large not only for OEMs but also for end users. Instead of being limited to individual solutions, end users will reap the benefit of networked solutions, getting a richer experience and more capable systems.
Andrew Wale, vice president of Business Development, Advance Transformer Co., a division of Philips Electronics North America Corp., concurs, saying the announcement represents a major milestone in wireless networking. "ZigBee is poised to become the leading wireless technology for a myriad of uses ranging from building automation to industrial and residential applications," he said.
The Alliance made the announcement after completing its most recent member meeting and open house—this one in South Korea. According to Heile, this event drew more attendees (nearly 300) and exhibitors (23) than last summer's event in Boston.
Korea isn't the only part of Asia embracing the ZigBee standard. ARC Advisory Group (www.arcweb.com) reports that several suppliers at the recent CEATECH Japan 2004 show introduced wireless, low-power sensor devices based on the then-evolving ZigBee standard. Among them was Mitsubishi Electric, which demonstrated a device supporting communication speeds up to 250 kbps at a range of 70 m. It includes battery power supply, sensors, and wireless circuitry. Oki Electric introduced a prototype promising two years of operation powered by three AAA batteries with 10–20 transmissions a day. Both companies promise easy installation and emphasize security as an important application.
In addition, Hitachi says it has run an experimental building-monitoring project using wireless sensor nodes. Hitachi wants to harvest energy from the tiny vibrations typical to buildings so that no external power supply is required. Under the test, 40 sensor nodes and 14 wireless receivers in its six-story building provided a temperature reading every minute with successful operations through 10 consecutive hours.
Meanwhile, back in the States, a new partnership between Ember ( www.ember.com ) and Arcom ( www.arcom.com ), supplier of embedded computer and communications technology to industry) promises ZigBee-based wireless sensor and control networks that link factories, supply chains, and field operations to IBM enterprise systems. The Arcom/Ember solution creates an end-to-end telemetry communications gateway that pumps ZigBee network data from remote devices to IBM's publish-and-subscribe information broker, WebSphere MQ Integrator.
According to Arcom president Arlen Nipper, the partnership solves one of the thorniest issues impeding the adoption of new wireless mesh technology in industrial applications: making the data from remote sensors and controllers easy to integrate and useful to business applications. "Bringing information from the field back to the enterprise through ZigBee networks will transform the way many industries do business," says Nipper. "Information can be retrieved faster, more efficiently, and at less cost."