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Nest, Yale, Samsung Promote Thread Home-Automation Standard

San Ramon, Calif. — A seven-member technology group that includes Nest Labs, Yale Security and Samsung’s CE group has defined a wireless mesh-network technology said to offer more security and reliability than the ZigBee and Z-Wave standards for home automation.

The Group, called the Thread Group, said an interoperability testing program will get underway in the first half of 2015, and the first home-automation products incorporating the technology, called Thread, could be available sometime in that half from current members. The group will solicit additional companies for memberships later this year, and their products could be available sometime in the second half of 2015.

Other group members are ARM, Silicon Labs, Freescale Semiconductor and Big Ass, a maker of residential and commercial fans.

Thread only goes so far, however. The 2.4GHz technology ensures interoperability at the network communications level, but the technology doesn’t specify an applications layer, or the command protocols, to carry out commands. Those are left up to individual suppliers, but Thread products could incorporate multiple protocols to deliver full interoperability among products from different suppliers.

“We’re open to discussing” standardized communications protocols depending on feedback, added Sujata Neidig, Thread Group marketing VP and Freescale Semiconductor business development manager. The group, however, first wants to make sure the “foundation” is laid for the technology’s adoption, she said.

“We’re focused on improving the network layer,” added Chris Boross, Thread Group president and Nest technical product marketing manager.

Thread makes encryption mandatory instead of optional, incorporates what the group calls “banking-class encryption,” and eliminates dedicated hubs by distributing the network’s brains across all networked devices to improve reliability, said Boross. “There’s no dedicated network-management controller that must be on all the time,” he explained. If a controller fails, the whole network goes down, but with Thread’s distributed architecture, you can remove any device, and the Thread network still survives.”

Nest’s smart thermostat and smoke/CO detector incorporate a form of Thread, and like many other wireless mesh-network products already on the market, could be upgraded to the full Thread standard, Boross said. Nest’s smart thermostat also incorporates Wi-Fi, and as a result, an upgraded thermostat could serve as one of the products on a Thread network that accepts Wi-Fi commands from a smartphone or tablet on premises or off.

Thread borrows the physical and media access control (MAC) layers of the existing IEEE 802.15.4 wireless mesh-network standard, which forms the basis of the existing ZigBee home automation technology. As a result, chips are readily available for use in Thread products, said Boross. In addition, a software upgrade can add Thread to currently existing 802.15.4 products.

Thread merges 802.15.4 technology with other existing technologies, such as 6LoWPAN, which enables the 802.15.4 radio to carry the latest form of the Internet protocol, called IPv6. That technology will simplify routing commands sent over Wi-Fi to a Thread network, Boross said.

Other features include 802.15.4’s low-power capability for battery-operated devices such as sensors, but Thread further optimizes battery life because it has been designed for use with devices that are asleep most of the time, Boross said.

Thread supports more than 250 devices on a network, and its physical-layer throughput of 250Kpbs matches ZigBee’s throughput in the 2.4GHz band.

Detailed technical documents will be available later this year, when applications for new membership will be taken.