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ZigBee Wireless Mesh Networking for Monitoring & Control

What is ZigBee?

ZigBee is a consortium of software, hardware and services companies that have developed a common standard for wireless networking of sensors and controllers. While other wireless standards are concerned with exchanging large amounts of data, ZigBee is for devices that have smaller throughput needs. The other driving factors are low cost, high reliability, high security, low battery usage, simplicity and interoperability with other ZigBee devices.

ZigBee can be used in commercial applications such as building maintenance for monitoring and controlling lights, Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC), smoke alarms, fire alarms, burglar alarms, landscaping sprinklers and lights and many other uses. In health care, ZigBee can be used for patient monitoring equipment, fitness monitoring and other uses. Industrial environments can use ZigBee for asset monitoring, process control, assuring compliance with environmental standards and energy management. Used correctly, ZigBee enabled devices can give a warning before a breakdown occurs so that repairs can be made in the most cost effective manner. They can also be used to maintain quality and reduce waste.

Soon, ZigBee enabled devices will show up in our homes. They will be used for controlling our home entertainment systems, lights, garage door openers, alarms, panic buttons, and many other uses. Imagine your home appliances letting you know when the dishwasher or washing machine is done, or the mailbox notifying you when the mail has been delivered. You could even have ZigBee enabled devices feed and water your pets, then let them outside.

How Does ZigBee Work?

ZigBee is based on the IEEE 802.15.4 PHY and MAC layers, which define the Physical hardware and Media Access Control layers of the network, combined with a defined network stack that includes security and the application framework. Application Profiles, on top of the stack provide the common application software for a particular usage.

ZigBee hardware typically consists of an eight bit microcontroller, combined with a miniature transceiver, a small amount (e.g. 32KB) of flash memory and RAM. Most of the ZigBee stack is provided in ASIC. The cost of the components is currently $4 to $7, but is expected to drop below $2 to $3 within one year, when purchased in quantity.

There are three radio frequencies used for ZigBee RF communications: 2.4 GHz with 16 channels and a data rate of 250kbps for worldwide coverage, 868 MHz with a single channel and a data rate of 20kbps in Europe, and 915 MHz with 10 channels and a data rate of 40 kbps in the Americas. For comparison, even at 250 kbps, the data throughput is only about one tenth that of Bluetooth, another wireless networking solution, but more than sufficient for monitoring and controlling usages. Broadcast range for ZigBee is approximately 70 meters. Theoretically ZigBee networks can contain up to 64K (65,536) network nodes. Current testing has not reached anywhere near that level.

While ZigBee can use a star topology (point to multipoint) or cluster tree topology (several linked point to multipoint systems) the most useful is a mesh topology. In a mesh topology, any node can also serve as a router for other devices on the network. If there are barriers such as concrete or steel walls that interfere with the transmission of the radio frequency, another path is chosen to reach the desired device. Higher densities of devices in an area lead to stronger, more reliable networks. If one device should fail, the path is automatically rerouted through other nodes on the network. In this way the networks become “self healing”.

ZigBee uses 128 bit AES encryption algorithms for a highly secure network. In commercial or industrial settings, hackers might try to perform a Denial of Lighting, similar to a Denial of Service on internet sites that they hack into. This might not be done only to be disruptive, but on large buildings in major cities, hackers might be tempted to black out only some lights in order to spell words or slogans with the remaining lights. Triggering fire alarms could also be an effective way to get a target out of a building and in the open in an assassination attempt. Access control through wireless connections might lead to break-ins and burglary in an insecure environment. For these reasons ZigBee has been designed to have a high level of security.

In order for ZigBee to catch on in businesses and homes it needs to be simple to set up the network and to add new devices. ZigBee networks rely on simplicity and ease of setup. In most instances a new device is simply synchronized with the existing network by placing the two devices close together and pressing a button on each device at the same time.

Battery life of a device is an important consideration in the design of the ZigBee standard. Many devices will have simple inexpensive batteries and will remain off most of the time. A device can be “pinged” to awaken or scheduled for a prearranged time. In this way the device is checked to see that it remains on the network, yet maximizes battery life up to several years.

Why does San Juan Software care about ZigBee?

The principals of San Juan Software have been in the embedded systems software business for many years. We have long envisioned a world where small embedded computer devices are simple to use, ubiquitous and communicate among themselves. ZigBee has many of the elements that can help us realize this vision. San Juan Software is focused on making helping our clients implement ZigBee and other wireless networking solutions for embedded computing devices.

For more information about the ZigBee Alliance visit their website:

Please contact San Juan Software to find out how we might assist in your ZigBee project.
San Juan Software San Juan Software
1 (360) 378-8669 221 Wood Duck Lane Friday Harbor, WA 98250 USA

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