Today’s industrial revolution is the Internet of Things. If a company’s new electronic product isn’t connected and their business model doesn’t include a services component then they are losing relevancy and mindshare of their customers and falling behind their competition. By 2017, Gartner anticipates that 50% of IoT solutions will come from start-up companies less than three years old. While shipments of IoT enabled devices in 2020 are expected to hit 25 billion.
There are now twice the number of connected devices on the planet than there are humans. However, be it smart meters and thermostats, or smart pumps and motors, or sensors and robots, there is no common connectivity language in the IoT. Amid competing technologies including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cellular and radio frequency, and numerous versions of each, the communications landscape is complex and unsettled.
The inclusion of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in smartphones, laptops and other personal electronics has led to their popularity within the Internet of Things. Wi-Fi, with its array of 802.11 variants, provides the highest levels of wireless data transfer of any technology in common use. The new emerging 802.11ac Wi-Fi uses the 2.5- and 5-GHz bands with a combined bandwidth of 5.3 Gb/s, and indoor range is in the order of 30m to 60m.
Cellular connectivity is also common in mobile technology and has the advantage of coverage, which is essentially global, while throughput is fairly high at 7.2Mbps (2.5-4G network). Cellular may be the only alternative, except for some limited satellite technologies, for IoT designers that need coverage outside of fixed areas available to Wi-Fi as well as for local coverage similar to that provided by Bluetooth and other short-range wireless.
However cellular comes with its own issues, the first is recurring cost, since cellular operation requires plans from established service providers. The second, similar to Wi-Fi, is the high rates of power consumption compared to alternatives, which would increase maintenance and power costs, therefore limiting applications and growth.
Until smart phones were enabled with media players, Bluetooth was on the verge of dying out but since then it has come to be embedded in numerous devices. Bluetooth has “classic” and Low Energy (LE) versions; the 4.x standard allows both or either to be implemented. Bluetooth is a short-range technology utilising the 2.4- to 2.485-GHz ISM (industrial, scientific, and medical) band, allowing a maximum range of approximately 100m.
Bluetooth was designed as a point-to-point cable replacement technology, not a networking technology. However, some companies are currently working on a networking layer for Bluetooth (“Bluetooth Mesh”). We are yet to see concrete results and mesh networking is very challenging because of latency issues.
Enter ZigBee, also known warmly as 802.15.4, which is expected to see a five-fold increase in popularity over the next five years, rising from just under 425 million today to over 2.1 billion in 2019, according to ABI Research. With a range of approximately 100m, ZigBee has been designed to operate in a power-saving mode, meaning it’s only active for only a limited amount of time, often as low as 0.1%. More power is used during this period, but almost no power is consumed in sleep mode.
ZigBee has also had considerable success in the field of Building Automation Systems (BAS). As the industry Transformations from BAS into the Building Internet of Things (BIoT), ZigBee has filled the need for a long-life, low-power, transmitter of sensory data within buildings. ZigBee is expected to see highest levels of growth in the home automation market, where the share of total ZigBee shipments is expected to rise from around 9% today to 28% in 2019.
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There are a multitude of other options too, each with their individual benefits and flaws. Sigma Designs’ Z-Wave and ANT by Garmin provide a similar offering to ZigBee, but have not had the same levels of success. So are we still waiting for an all-encompassing “perfect” technology to serve our diverse IoT demand, or will each option be used in its niche and brought together under a broad platform?
Well, WiFi has emerged as a universal option, and requirement, for most applications. Market momentum has pushed ANT to the forefront for fitness applications, while ZigBee dominates in applications related to the building automation and home automation. While the large established base of compatible smartphones has pulled Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy into IoT devices targeting Personal Area Network applications.
Despite all this talk of the varying technologies vying for the title of primary wireless IoT connectivity, it's shrewd to bear in mind that we are still at the beginning of a very long road. Consider if you will that still over 95% of industrial automation systems in factories and manufacturing plants remain wired, not wireless.