Technologies behind the Internet of Things

The internet of things (IoT) promises a smarter future. One in which a faltering bridge informs local transportation authorities that it needs repair. Or a bridge that can warn oncoming smart cars to prepare to drive over a frozen surface. An automated manufacturing plant that orders its own supplies and even schedules and executes maintenance. An environment with every thing connected to and aware of every other thing, sharing information to assist the next thing down the line or provide feedback in any direction. 

Two layers are required to actualize the reality of an insightful and intuitive everything: Application and connectivity. The application layer is composed of physical  products and services such as intelligent cars, smart roads, and connected thermostats. Connectivity breathes life into these objects, creating a cohesive experience that adds value to the system and its users.

Most importantly, the internet of things is about much more than just things. It is the promise to create intelligent, connected systems, smarter than the sum of their parts, that provide real-time analytics, useful projections, and tangible value from that data and interactivity. In addition to the set of physical objects that make up an IoT network, there are several technologies that bring it to life.

Digital Foundry has completed a handful of projects that exist in this space. If you represent a global business that is looking for partners to help develop an IoT project, we’d love to hear from you.

Otherwise, please enjoy this post, an introduction to the primary protocols behind the IoT technologies: ZigBee, Thread, Z-Wave, and Wi-Fi.


 
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ZigBee

ZigBee is a wireless mesh networking standard developed for wireless control and monitoring applications that require long battery life. It is a simple and inexpensive way to create personal area networks with low-power radios. The standards are maintained and published by the ZigBee Alliance, a nonprofit association of nearly 450 global companies.

The low latency and simple, short messaging mode requirements set by the ZigBee Alliance make Zigbee devices desirable for engineering teams working on IoT applications. Similarly, the high standard that all manufacturers are required to meet decreases the business risk for a product owner investing in this protocol. For most users the most important ZigBee requirement is the minimum 2-year radio battery life, which practically eliminates the risk of a dead IoT product at the most important time – such as a fire alarm that must be on constantly but only responds once, if ever, over a long period of time.

In order for a radio to perform for 2 years on a single battery, ZigBee compromises the signal’s amplitude and range. This is not a problem, however, for its primary purpose to connect equipment that is close together and does not need high rates of data transfer. This includes most household electronics, traffic management systems, and many industrial applications.. The mesh network  provides high reliability and security and can transmit over greater distances by going through intermediate devices to reach distant devices.

To learn more about the ZigBee radio protocol or the ZigBee alliance, go to www.ZigBee.org to get the latest news and in-depth articles on the global radio standards.

Thread

Thread is an IPv6-based protocol that was developed specifically for IoT smart home products. It was released in 2014 by the Thread Group, a working group of companies such as Google, Samsung, Arm Holdings, Yale Locks, and Silicon Labs. Intent on becoming the standard for household IoT devices, the Thread Group announced intentions for a partnership and cross certification with the ZigBee alliance in early 2016.

Engineers are drawn to Thread as an IP-addressable protocol that easily creates and manages secure connections between hundreds of devices with cloud access and AES encryption. Product owners looking to place faith in Thread’s technology can take solace from the number of innovative and leading brands around the world that have come together to develop and support this protocol. Users love that the security that comes with Thread’s AES encryption is enabled through simple-to-set-up systems that are fully operational within minutes of plugging in.

One of the few critiques on Thread is its existence. Admittedly, yet another wireless communication protocol aimed at the IoT applications market creates more fragmentation in an expanding selection of radio platforms for wireless devices. If you want to learn more about the Thread Group, other companies or applications that use the Thread protocol, or expand on the functionality of Thread, visit www.ThreadGroup.org

Z-Wave

The Z-Wave wireless communications protocol was designed for home automation by a Danish startup later acquired by Sigma Designs. Joining Sigma in the Z-Wave Alliance are Nortek Security, ADT Corporation, Ingersoll Rand, and LG Uplus. Z-Wave is one of the most widely used IoT wireless protocols, employed by brands such as Honeywell, AT&T, Verizon, GE, LG, and ADT home security.

Working on a 900 MHz band, far from Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, makes Z-Wave radios practically immune to interference and thus ideal from an engineering point of view. Product owners should appreciate the Z-Wave full mesh network, which can link up to 232 devices for incredibly scalable platforms that won’t be outgrown by their application. End users already enjoy many Z-Wave products, probably without knowing it, and this wide adoption makes it a well-tested networking protocol.

Products that use the Z-Wave wireless protocol rely Sigma Designs as the sole licensor of Z-Wave. While this helps to maintain uniformity and reliability, it is worth noting that  this could be a deal-breaking risk for some applications.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Z-Wave wireless protocol should visit www.Z-WaveAlliance.org to learn more about their certification policy and visit www.Z-Wave.com to learn more about current applications and products that use Z-Wave radios.

Wi-Fi     

Wi-Fi is the most generally known protocol for wireless communication across connected devices. The standard on which it is based, IEEE 802.11, was released in 1997. In 1999, the WiFi Alliance was formed to oversee and hold the Wi-Fi trademark, under which products using this technology are sold.

As a commonly used home wireless local area network (WLAN) between devices this protocol almost always has an existing network which users are already familiar with. With such broad use there are high standards for network encryption with WPA2 and WPS satisfying the majority of engineers and global customers. The high penetration and existing security should similarly please product owners considering this protocol as their IoT platform’s radio standard. 

Wi-Fi requires strong radios to achieve the distance and penetration necessary for a constant and stable connection between a consumer’s desktops, laptops, mobile devices, and home network. This strength requires the most significant power of all the traditional IoT protocols available. While high signal strength requirements are great for connectivity and reliability, they also require high power usage, which will usually require a Wi-Fi device to either be connected to a wall outlet, like a home router, or to charge daily as in the case of a mobile device.

If you’re looking to learn more about the Wi-Fi protocol, its trademark, and associated products, go to www.Wi-Fi.org.

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