ZigBee and Z-Wave in smart grid stand-off, with Wi-Fi the wild card
The rising interest in smart grid is giving a major opportunity to technologies originally developed for home or industrial automation, serving up an application that is attracting major funding and even government mandates. This trend is also highlighting the potential stand-off between two standards efforts for low power, short wave automation networks – ZigBee and Z-Wave, with low power Wi-Fi a possible wild card. All these will seek to be the default technology in smart meters and other power management gadgets around the home, allowing them to communicate with one another, with remote control units, with utilities and with the grid.
Both ZigBee and Z-Wave are shifting towards supporting IP networks that embrace a host of embedded wireless devices right down to sensors. The chipmakers are developing ultra-low power designs that can be incorporated into automation equipment and even body monitoring gadgets for healthcare, as well as consumer devices. The new wave of these will typically include a 32-bit or 16-bit processor with a proprietary or Linux-based real time OS and support any IP-based standard. For instance, Imagination Technologies recently previewed its forthcoming series of embedded ‘Meta Connected Processors’, which are geared to IP connectivity in low cost consumer.
The Z-Wave Alliance gained major support in 2006 when Intel backed its technology, developed by Danish start-up Zensys, which in turn had attracted investment from Cisco. The latest to join the group is Nokia spin-off There Corporation, which has taken over the former Nokia Home Control Center (HCC) product for smart home and smart metering, now called ThereGate. ThereGate gathers and processes information about home energy consumption, monitoring domestic appliances via an intuitive user interface and allowing users or utilities to manage energy usage.
It will now integrate the Z-Wave standard into its products to enable them to communicate with other Zensys enabled platforms, extending applications to other control applications such as temperature control or security sensors. ThereGate users will be able to control all their Z-Wave compatible devices via a central interface or remotely via a browser, control unit or cellphone.
One of the debates in the smart grid is how far the responsibility will lie with utilities to tap into consumers’ power usage and make it more efficient, and how far this activity will be end user controlled. A similar debate exists in other areas, such as healthcare, where the consumer’s data has traditionally been held by a central agency and accessed on request, but where some believe modern techniques allow the customer to gain the upper hand. Speaking at Qualcomm’s recent Innovation Day in London, Don Jones, VP of business development for health and life services, commented: “The consumer can own the data and run the relationship with the physician, allowing the physician to access the information.”
Energy usage data may be less sensitive, but the same arguments are taking place over how far responsibility for ‘energy health’ lies with users or utilities. If the consumer is to be motivated to take control of electricity use, systems need to be simple to use and preferably integrated into broader home management networks. Google is showing strong interest in emerging wireless technologies for smart grids, and particularly for those that bypass the need for dedicated smart meters supplied by the utilities. The search company has a unit called PowerMeter, and this is working on a system in the UK that uses ZigBee, and does away with the need for discrete meters. It partners with AlertMe, whose ZigBee-based system relays information between a wireless hub that plugs into a home’s broadband connection, smart plugs throughout the house, and an electric meter monitor.
Earlier this year, the ZigBee Alliance agreed that the type of machine-to-machine and automation applications for which its standard was devised would need to adapt for higher data volumes, and for integration into the internet. Looking to smart grid and other IP-based automation markets, it embraced this new IP world in a bid to see off challenges from Z-Wave and Wi-Fi.
ZigBee, based on the 802.15.4 short range wireless standards, is the most adopted platform in the M2M and industrial/home monitoring areas, and has already been looking at a high data rate extension of its technology. At one time this was expected to use low power UltraWideBand, though integration with Bluetooth or a proprietary system could also be considered. In tandem, it now says it will incorporate standards from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) into its specification portfolio. The Alliance said would also benefit from “the knowledge and experience contained in IETF standards for large scale network addressability, security and IT integration” and bring this to bear on large scale sensor and control networks.
In particular, this will give ZigBee products the capability to support native IP and integrate with web services. Internet connectivity is supported by existing ZigBee specifications but the addition of native IP will offer tighter integration from wireless devices all the way to up to large scale utility IT networks. This should boost ZigBee products in the smart grid market. Some of these projects are using the ZigBee Smart Energy public application profile and nearly all are IP-oriented.
California start-up Arch Rock is one company looking at the ZigBee-over-IP option, and has a Compact Application Protocol to host ZigBee applications and services on IP networks, initially targeted at smart metering.
It says that, for apartment blocks with many meters, it would need to be combined with powerline – hence a recent cooperation between the Zigbee Alliance and the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, to extend the existing Zigbee Smart Energy application profile to run on HomePlug networks. The Wi-Fi/powerline combination is also hopeful of taking a role as “the backbone of the home network”, as Craig Barratt, CEO of WLan chipmaker Atheros, said in September when his firm acquired powerline chip firm Intellon. Powerline technology, which runs on the home power circuit, can be combined with Wi-Fi and Ethernet to create integrated home network solutions and support smart metering. But powerline has its own standards issue, with six different candidates.
For its part, Zensys argues that ZigBee was designed for industrial automation and is not suited to the home or smart metering. The core of the argument is cost. Like most standards, ZigBee has to encompass various markets and profiles, and Zensys argues that this will make its radios relatively complex and expensive in a sector where extremely low cost will be as important as low power.
Meanwhile, Wi-Fi’s main opportunity in smart grid might lie in connecting meters to the utility’s systems (BelAir recently won a deal with UK utility London Hydro to provide a Wi-Fi mesh wide area network to connect to meters). However, low power WLans are also being targeted at in-home networks and some specialists like SmartSynch, an AT&T partner, have Wi-Fi enabled smart meters.
Earlier this month, the Wi-Fi Alliance formed a new taskgroup to decide which of its standards needs to be modified to ensure Wi-Fi takes a central role in smart grid applications. It released a report called ‘Wi-Fi for the smart grid: mature, interoperable, security protected technology for advanced utility management communications’. This looks at the places in the ecosystem where WLans can play a role, such as smart meters and other appliances, home area networks, and integration of smart grids with cellular systems.
Over at the IETF, the body has a Routing over Low Power and Lossy Networks (Roll) group, which work son IP-based standards for connecting embedded devices, meters and sensors to the internet. This is chaired by Jean-Philippe Vasseur, a distinguished engineer at Cisco, which has a key role to play in the IP-based smart grid, and, like IBM, is looking to ensure that its own frameworks, incorporating a combination of standards and Cisco technologies, are heavily adopted.
Sorting out in-home standards will be essential to make the broader smart grid initiatives workable. George Arnold, national coordinator for smart grid interoperability at the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), said this week that the grid will eventually encompass hundreds of standards in areas from cybersecurity to in-car connections. “We’ve never tried to anything of this magnitude before. It’s more complicated than the internet and internet standards have been evolving for over 20 years,” he said – but smart grid standards need to be agreed next year. NIST was given authority over US smart grid standards in 2007 and in September released a framework and roadmap for interoperability. Key principles include backwards compatibility with existing standards and that the eventual structure should be based entirely on IP.
And yet another standards effort also emerged this week – the SDC (Smart Device Communications) engineering committee, under the auspices of the TIA (Telecommunications Industry Association). The group will focus on standards to enable, monitor and ensure interoperable interfaces to the network for all classes of gadget.
The committee, officially known as TR-50, aims to produce a standard protocol for communicating with smart devices used in sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, home automation, transport, entertainment, semiconductors, communications and energy distribution (smart grid).
“While other protocols may accommodate accessing subsets of information and events, no other organization addresses common requirements and interoperability of essential intelligent/smart devices across industries,” said Charles Kenmore, chairman of the TIA’s standards and technical committee, in a statement.
TR-50 will work to incorporate the best of many specifications that have been created in various sectors over the past 15 years to create a flexible, adaptive protocol that will include future proofing and be easily tailored for different markets and usage scenarios.
Companies declaring their involvement at this initial stage include Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Intel, ILS, LG, Motorola, Nokia Siemens, Qualcomm, Telcordia, Tyco, Verari Systems and Ygomi. Samsung and the Chinese giants are absent at this time. And Telenor has set up a new division devoted to this area. Telenor Objects is described as “a platform for smart information sharing” targeted at the vertical market. It complements another new unit, Telenor Connexion, for the machine-to-machine (M2M) market. CEO Jon Fredrik Baksaas said the Norwegian operator’s new division is already servicing Volvo, Daimler and Securitas Direct, and claimed to have the largest installed base of M2M SIM cards in Europe. With regard to Objects, he said: “This is a long bet, but there is a need for these platforms to emerge in order for other industries to use them.”