Magazine Article | December 28, 2011

Tapping Into ZigBee For Smarter Grids And Better Data Integrity

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By Khalid Kidari, dir. of product management and marketing, DAP Technologies,

Companies with extensive field service operations, particularly utilities, have been among the early adopters of ZigBee. But even if you haven’t heard of the low-power, high-potential technology, chances are you’re already using it.

ZigBee is currently used in a host of devices including remote controls, televisions, tire pressure and brake sensors, appliances, thermostats, HVAC and lighting systems, smart grids, and usage meters. And with countless new applications in development, ZigBee continues to gain traction in a wide variety of enterprise and consumer applications.

While the uses for ZigBee are numerous, it is only recently that the technology has been standardized and available for rugged mobile computers. Interoperability with various ZigBee-enabled products is ensured, data is actionable in real time, communications are improved, and operations can be streamlined.

Why ZigBee?
The appeal of ZigBee is in its ability to be read at long range (almost 100 feet), while offering a high level of security, a low cost, and consuming very little power.

ZigBee sensors can be networked into self-healing mesh networks, so named for the redundant communications paths between the source and destination that help ensure reliable data transmission even if one data point should fail. These mesh networks can also extend the range of multiple sensors by miles.

Streamline Installation
Integrity of data and reliability of communications are paramount. ZigBee can be used in the installation of solar, electrical, and thermal smart grids that rely on self-organizing, self-healing mesh networks. As each data point is established, a ZigBee communicator can verify that the device is operational and data is streaming.

Compared to a single-function ZigBee communicator, a ZigBee-enabled tablet computer adds additional efficiencies to the installation process. An installer, for example, could scan an associated bar code for asset tracking. Or he could take a picture of the installation and use GPS-based GeoTagging to record the exact latitude and longitude of the transformer, meter, or other equipment. Or broadband wireless technology, such as Gobi 3000, could be used to receive commands from the home office and transmit data back.

With all these capabilities on a single tablet, ZigBee networks can be implemented quickly and efficiently while documenting information important for the maintenance of the network.

Improve Privacy And Security
Utility companies are focused on streamlining meter readings, improving data accuracy, and achieving better efficiency. ZigBee can be used to automate meter reading.

Recently, some utilities have sparked debate by exploring automatic meter reading systems that rely on the ubiquity of home WiFi networks to push usage data to the company. At first glance, WiFi-enabled thermostats are attractive because they provide customers with remote climate control and remote meter reading for utility companies, but customers have balked due to the perception that utility companies can access other personal information flowing through the WiFi access point.

ZigBee, on the other hand, is a more secure proposition. It offers customers the same remote control of their thermostats by smartphone or computer, but ensures the utility company is receiving only the information they are intended to get. Furthermore, since data for entire neighborhoods is conveyed though a mesh network and individual addresses are assigned numerical codes, no identifying customer information that could breech privacy — like addresses — is transmitted over the network.

ZigBee Improves Maintenance
While a mesh network offers a degree of reliability over more linear setups, no network is maintenancefree. ZigBee provides a simplified assessment of outages, allowing faster restoration of power.

A ZigBee-enabled tablet computer combines the advantage of native network communications with a multitasking tool that also aids in routing, asset management, location-based services, mapping, and more. For the organizations responsible for installing, maintaining, and repairing ZigBee systems, this takes communications to a new level, providing access to the right data using the most appropriate data infrastructure.