Later this year, suppliers will start to release products based on a wireless standard called Zigbee that enable sensor networks to trigger a response to changing circumstances.
Zigbee is a set of networking, security and application software standards that sits atop the 802.15.4 low-data wireless standard approved by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
Unlike other wireless standards such as 802.11 or 802.16, Zigbee and 802.15.4 are designed to carry limited amounts of data at a maximum rate of 250Kbps, said Bob Heile, chairman of the Zigbee Alliance.
Zigbee will allow users to construct mesh networks that can send data back to a central repository, respond to changes in their environment and monitor themselves for failures or redundancies, said Jon Adams, director of radio technology and strategy at Freescale Semiconductor
Backers of the technology take great pains to avoid overselling Zigbee, but many think the technology can find a home as a replacement for wiring that connects electrical system controllers or passive asset management tags.
The Zigbee Alliance plans to certify products with a Zigbee logo to ensure that products from different suppliers are interoperable and easy to manage, Heile said.
Other popular wireless standards are overkill for the types of applications envisioned by Zigbee supporters. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth use far more power than a Zigbee radio would consume, Heile said. Radios built with the standard should be able to operate on household batteries for years, he said.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips are also much too expensive to justify setting up the large networks that would allow some of these applications to work, said Jack Gold, an industry analyst with Meta Group.
Semiconductor makers, such as Freescale, will have to produce chips that cost less than $1 to convince companies that there is a need for this type of information.
After addressing the cost issues, Zigbee products should be an easy sell to any factory or distribution outlet that wants to assimilate as much information as possible, said Glen Allmendinger, president of Harbor Research.
Most businesses develop operations or capacity plans using historical data that only presents users with a sense of what has happened in the past, Allmendinger said. Sensor networks would allow them to gather data as it happens, and therefore predict where problems might occur, he said.
Some companies are experimenting with passive RFID tags that do little more than store a unique identification number. Zigbee radios hold some promise as active RFID tags that can sense more complicated information and distribute it, said Ian McPherson, president of the Wireless Data Research Group.
"[Zigbee products] are not meant to replace passive RFID, but they can change the economics of active RFID by using more sensors and less gateways," McPherson said.
But even passive RFID tags are too expensive for most companies to consider implementing, although costs are expected to come down over the next few years.
Despite Zigbee's promise, the technology will face hurdles as users try to scale their networks to massive sizes, McPherson said.
Mesh networks are an emerging technology that users are still evaluating and troubleshooting. The technology will probably be used on less-important applications until users get comfortable with it, he said.
Freescale will introduce Zigbee-based products later this year.
Tom Krazit writes for IDG News Service
This was first published in August 2004