Wireless network sensoring: Different strokes for different folks

IMS Research forecasts that low-power wireless technologies will increase from 40 million IC shipments in 2009 to 200 million in 2015. The increase will also display how many options there are for users, depending on their circumstance and preference.


‘Wireless sensor networking’ has become a buzz-word used to encompass the use of wireless technologies across a wide range of application areas, ranging from building automation, metering and energy management, to emerging areas such as consumer health monitoring. A recent report from IMS Research (The World Market for Low-Power Wireless – 2011 Edition) forecasts that the use of low-power wireless technologies in these applications alone will increase from under 40 million IC shipments in 2009, to over 200 million IC shipments in 2015.

Yet no single low-power wireless technology fits the bill everywhere - despite attempts by some promoters to suggest otherwise! So, let’s take a look at some of the most talked about technologies and where they are currently carving out a niche:

Currently there is considerable momentum behind utilizing ZigBee technology for smart meter gateways, particularly in the US. Annual shipments of IEEE 802.15.4 ICs using ZigBee PRO for this application are estimated to have increased from around 5 million units in 2009, to over 10 million in 2010, largely because of a mid-year surge in meter roll-outs in North America. With the growing momentum behind the upcoming ZigBee SE2.0 development (which will specify an IP stack including 6LoWPAN to replace the proprietary network layer previously used), uptake of ZigBee in smart metering applications is forecast to grow rapidly in the coming years. This in turn gives ZigBee IC and device suppliers further access to the emerging market of ‘home area network’ (HAN) devices for energy management functionality; facilitating ZigBee-enabled in-home devices to communicate with smart metering gateways and – once the associated infrastructure and business models are in place – to react to demand-response and/or dynamic pricing signals from utilities.

Other examples of technologies forecast to show increasing uptake in certain sensor network applications include EnOcean, low-power Wi-Fi and Z-Wave. EnOcean (a proprietary energy harvesting technology from EnOcean GmbH) is being increasingly adopted in commercial building automation, where there is a good return on investment in battery-less automation. According to IMS Research, over 30 million EnOcean solutions are forecast to be shipped between 2010 and 2015; up from sub-1 million estimated to have been shipped in 2009.

Low-power Wi-Fi solutions, which optimize fully certified Wi-Fi technology to enable low-power operation, are forecast to demonstrate even more rapid uptake than EnOcean in the coming years, across a wide range of application areas. This is driven by factors such as the inherent IP addressability; existing infrastructure of Wi-Fi devices; consumer familiarity and acceptance; and the declining ASP of low-power Wi-Fi ICs and modules.

Z-Wave – despite its somewhat proprietary nature – has shown notable traction within application areas such as the remote control and monitoring device market; utilized by companies ranging from Ingersoll Rand to ADT. Uptake of Z-Wave technology is forecast to grow rapidly in the coming years; with over 60% CAGR for Z-Wave-enabled devices shipped between 2010 and 2015. Should Sigma Designs opt to transition Z-Wave technology to become an open standard, even higher growth is expected.

Additionally, new low-power wireless technologies are forecast to appear on the scene in the coming years. Examples include DECT ULE technology, which is currently undergoing efforts to achieve ETSI certification. DECT ULE can enable low-power operation of ‘traditional’ DECT technology, with backwards compatibility to devices such as DECT-enabled Internet access devices or gateways.

Some industry commentators use ‘wireless sensor networking’ to refer to both LAN applications and PAN applications. When it comes to PAN applications, the edge that  Bluetooth technology has is evident. Bluetooth technology is forecast to be present in over 7 billion cellular handsets shipped between 2010 and 2015; with over half of these supporting dual-mode Bluetooth low energy (i.e., both ‘Classic’ and low energy functionality). For applications where the cell phone is positioned as a viable ‘hub’ (such as consumer medical and telehealth applications, as well as sports and fitness monitoring), using Bluetooth (in particular Bluetooth low energy) for the sensor devices offers a compelling argument. IMS Research projects over 60 million Bluetooth low energy-enabled sports, fitness and health monitoring devices to be shipped between 2010 and 2015 alone.

Yet this move towards standardized solutions is not evident in all segments. For some applications, such as automotive sensors, where the after-market is limited and further interoperability is not required beyond replacement devices (and where maturity and a proven safety history is a precondition of use), low-cost, well-demonstrated proprietary solutions are expected to maintain their reign in the coming years.

Essentially, there is room for a wide range of low-power RF solutions - some standardized, some proprietary – to satisfy a variety of different requirements across a range of wireless sensor networking applications. There is no ‘one size fits all’ wireless technology for all these use-cases. However, certain low-power wireless technologies are forecast to show far greater adoption rates than others, due to a variety of factors, ranging from technical suitability to the marketing prowess of promoters.

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