ZigBee-it sounds like a new toy or Disney character, but it is actually a technology that is helping to, once again, reshape wireless networking. ZigBee is a protocol known as the IEEE 802.15.4 Standard. By operating over radio frequency (RF) bands, ZigBee is a wireless technology ideal for applications transmitting lower amounts of data and dealing with low-power issues.

The ZigBee Alliance explains the origin of the name as: “The technique that honey bees use to communicate new-found food sources to other members of the colony is referred to as the ZigBee Principle. Using this silent, but powerful communication system, whereby the bee dances in a zig-zag pattern, he is able to share information, such as the location, distance and direction of a newly discovered food source to its fellow colony members. Instinctively implementing the ZigBee Principle, bees around the world industriously sustain productive hives and foster future generations of colony members.”

Zigbee is a short-range, low-power radio frequency technology that allows devices embedded with it to interact with one another. The devices can be spread around a building as a mesh network. It's not unlike the other wireless technologies, but the word is that it will help revolutionize “real-world applications,” according to the technology's proponents.

From building automation to residential applications, it seems as if ZigBee excels over other personal area network (PAN) technologies. Of course, other PAN options such as Bluetooth and ultra-wide band (UWB) do have worthwhile attributes and loyal followers, but ZigBee is the newest standard.

Due to its short-range operability-70 to 100 meters-it can't attempt to eclipse Wi-Fi. But short-range capabilities make it quite useful for various applications including control and sensing functions in homes and commercial buildings.

Bluetooth does not have much to fear, because ZigBee cannot transmit substantial amounts of data, due to its lack of TCP/IP and slow speed, though some Bluetooth applications can be achieved with ZigBee. However, the low-power feature is important as battery life can be much longer than in other applications, which translates into long-term cost savings.

ZigBee can control devices without wireless, and one of the goals is to allow for control and sensing functions without needing line of sight, as was required with devices that used infrared technology. This means that controlling and operating smoke detectors, keyless entry systems, garage doors, thermostats, water heaters, window and door sensors, etc., can be done from essentially any location within the allotted distance. Upward of 64,000 nodes can be supported in one mesh network, and that means a whole lot of items working together, enough to get any building truly automated.

The technology is backed by the ZigBee Alliance, which is made up of roughly 100 member companies including giants such as Honeywell, Invensys, Mitsubishi, Motorola, Philips and Samsung.

According to the organization, it is a “rapidly growing, nonprofit industry consortium of leading semiconductor manufacturers, technology providers, OEMs and end-users worldwide. Membership is open to all. ZigBee Alliance members are defining a global specification for reliable, cost-effective, low-power wireless applications based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.”

The group is outspoken in support of ZigBee and has definite objectives: “The goal of the ZigBee Alliance is to create a specification defining mesh, peer-to-peer, and cluster tree network topologies with data security features and interoperable application profiles. The ZigBee specification provides a cost-effective, standards-based wireless networking solution that supports low data rates, low power consumption, security and reliability.”

ZigBee now has its own set of specifications that address issues such as interoperability and product consistency. The new set of specifications also helps alleviate some of the design concerns initially associated with ZigBee, making it more uniform in design and function.

Both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are well equipped to handle monitoring and controlling of systems and devices, but they require more power and more expensive chip sets for their related operations. Therefore, many feel the lower-cost ZigBee alternative will succeed on that fact alone.

The closest to ZigBee is RFID, but RFID is essentially a one-way communication that tracks items and accounts back at the main network. ZigBee is a two-way communication tool that gives various devices the ability to interact with one another. Some of these devices are those generally are not thought of as “smart,” such as light switches and window blinds.

In addition, ZigBee does not require access points and that too is grabbing attention. Access points come with an additional price tag and they limit device location.

Sounds like this is one solution that contractors and their customers are going to be buzzing about for quite a while. EC

STONG-MICHAS, a freelance writer, lives in central Pennsylvania. She can be reached at JenLeahS@msn.com.