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ZigBee Buzzes With Activity In Home Automation Market

Home and commercial automation devices incorporating a new low-power wireless-network standard could be available in the second or third quarters of next year, according to the 50-company ZigBee Alliance.

The alliance, created last October, is developing interoperability certification tests for wireless-network devices incorporating the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which was ratified in May. The first tests are targeted to occur in the first quarter of 2004, with home and industrial products expected to be available sometime in 2004, said Maria Burpee, a product marketing manager in the wireless and broadband group of alliance member Motorola.

Member companies include Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Leviton, Philips, Mitsubishi Electric and Electronics USA, Robert Bosch, Samsung Electronics and others.

The power-efficient, low-bit-rate technology is designed for industrial and residential control, monitoring, and automation, as well as for inventory tracking and management in big warehouses, Burpee said. The first round of products could include residential applications.

ZigBee functions could be embedded in such products as consumer electronics devices, toys, home security, lighting and PCs. Potential residential applications include alkaline-battery-operated temperature sensors that will communicate wirelessly to a central HVAC system. The sensor could even send a wireless signal to close motorized shades in the room. The technology will work its way into inexpensive do-it-yourself devices for homeowners, including moisture sensors on water heaters, the alliance added.

Although proprietary wireless standards are already used in such products, a common standard in widespread use by multiple suppliers will drive down prices and expand the number of devices that will talk to one another, the alliance said.

Besides the interoperability advantages, the standard’s low power consumption will enable a device to operate up to seven years or so on off-the-shelf alkaline batteries. The devices will run on 2.0 to 3.6 volts with conservation modes such as sleep cycles.

IEEE considers 802.15.4 a wireless personal area network (WPAN) standard, but it’s not intended to compete with the Bluetooth WPAN standard, Burpee said. Bluetooth consumes more power, and with its higher data rate of 1Mbps, Bluetooth is targeted for data-transfer applications between PCs, peripherals and cellphones. The maximum ZigBee data rate, in contrast, is 250kbps on the 2.4GHz unlicensed band. The data rate falls to 40kbps in the unlicensed 900MHz band and 20kbps in Europe’s unlicensed 800Mhz band. All certified devices will operate in all three bands, Burpee said.

ZigBee range is 20 to 30 meters in battery-operated devices compared to 10 meters for battery-powered Bluetooth devices. A higher power Bluetooth spec, intended for devices that plug into a home’s power outlets, extends Bluetooth’s range.

Up to 65,000 ZigBee devices can be networked together inexpensively in commercial buildings or big warehouses, while cost-efficient Bluetooth installations supports only eight devices on a network, she added.