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ZigBee Alliance extends its reach with JupiterMesh

Support for mesh networking is one of the defining battles of the wireless PAN (personal area network) standards race. It is the key advantage Google-backed Thread and the ZigBee Alliance claim over Bluetooth, though the Bluetooth SIG is adding mesh specifications this year. The best approach to mesh is hotly debated, but the technology is a way to extend the reach of a WPAN, physically and in terms of its targeted applications, and so to enhance the business case.

One of the most important examples is the field area network (FAN), which blankets an area of operation, such as a city, factory or power plant, with wireless connectivity. The ZigBee Alliance calls this a neighbourhood area network (NAN) and last week it pitched into this space with the launch of JupiterMesh, a low power Industrial IoT mesh protocol aimed at field area communications for utilities and smart cities.

It sounds very similar to the Wi-SUN Alliance’s Field Area Network (FAN), unveiled last month, and sees the ZigBee Alliance expand beyond its short range core market.

JupiterMesh combines parts of the IEEE 802.15.4g standard – also used by the Wi-SUN Alliance – with 802.15.4e, as well as IETF (Internet Engineering Taskforce) protocols like IPv6, 6LoWPAN, UDP, TCP, RPL and CoAP. This shows how connectivity standards must increasingly converge with higher layer and IP specifications to support smart things. Cumulatively, the spec covers the first four layers of the OSI model, and includes channel-hopping, multiband operation and encryption.

IEEE 802.15.4e is an expansion from the core standard that was approved in 2012, which supports channel hopping and variable time slot options to provide a more robust link aimed at industrial applications.

IEEE 802.15.4g is designed for Smart Utility Networks (SUN), the acronym from which the Wi-SUN Alliance takes its name. The 802.15.4g variation is aimed at deployments that might havems of endpoints, deployed across large geographic scales, using minimal infrastructure – in a peer-to-peer self-healing mesh.

The launch was announced at the ZigBee Alliance’s member meeting, and has already seen an interoperability event held at Powertech Labs, a subsidiary of BC Hydro. Smart grid players Itron, Landis+Gyr, and Trilliant were involved, with Exegin and Vencore providing their embedded technologies, and Andalog Devices, Atmel, and Texas Instruments providing the silicon.

For IoT developers, this provides the benefits of short range mesh networking at far greater ranges, thanks to utility and smart city deployments being much more geographically dense. With infrastructure like streetlights and smart meters, which have a constant power source, the mesh network is inherently full of hubs and repeaters – able to support hundreds or thousands of devices per street or block.

Based on the names involved in the launch, it looks like the smart grid industry is going to be the leading adopter – with smart metering AMI deployments a likely first candidate, and distributed generation due to require increasing connections to provide the status and usage data needed by utilities looking to diversify their generation portfolios and embrace renewable energy sources.

Collectively, JupiterMesh certainly has enough vendor support to take off – but AMI deployments aren’t a new thing, and many OEMs will have already settled on a product strategy. While its hardware specifications might be suitable for easy assembly line switching, the new standard still has to convince enough businesses to adopt it.

JupiterMesh can operate in the sub-GHz ISM bands, as well as the 2.4 GHz band, using FSK, O-QPSK, and OFDM modulation schemes. In theory, that makes this a globally compatible standard – with local RF interference being the most likely stumbling block.

There is overlap with Wi-SUN support. Notable companies that are members of both organizations include Analog Devices, Atmel, Elster, ETRI, Exegin, Itron, Landis+Gyr, Rohm Semi’s Lapis Semiconductor, Murata, NTT, Panasonic, Silicon Labs, Renesas, and Silver Spring Networks. Wi-SUN’s list of promoter members additionally includes Cisco, NICT, Omron and Toshiba. In the ZigBee Alliance, the additional promoters are Comcast, Kroger, Legrand, NXP, Philips, Schneider Electric, SmartThings, Texas Instruments and Wulian. Whether the two groups move closer together remains to be seen.

“JupiterMesh provides the enhanced communications capabilities that enable new applications and use cases for electric, gas, and water utilities, and smart cities that are driving the Active Grid,” said Ed Eckert, Itron’s director of standards, and a ZigBee Alliance board director. “These include applications to improve grid and pipeline safety, efficiency, and reliability; to accommodate renewable and distributed generation integration, and to drive improvements in consumer-facing applications like demand response.”

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