Dig the zig

ZigBee may sound like the hero of a children's picture book (Oh, ZigBee! You saved the whole hive!), but this little bee is all business. ZigBee is the name of an alliance of nearly 100 companies (www.zigbee.org) formed to promote products based around an open, global communications technology standard, IEEE's 802.15.4, which is expected to be ratified very soon. The name is also used to refer to

ZigBee” may sound like the hero of a children's picture book (“Oh, ZigBee! You saved the whole hive!”), but this little bee is all business. ZigBee is the name of an alliance of nearly 100 companies (www.zigbee.org) formed to promote products based around an open, global communications technology standard, IEEE's 802.15.4, which is expected to be ratified very soon. The name is also used to refer to the protocol itself, developed specifically for remote monitoring and control via wireless transmission of small amounts of data over short distances.

Three characteristics make ZigBee of special interest to the trucking industry, as well as to other business and consumer markets: it is low cost compared to other alternatives, the batteries that power ZigBee devices may last for years without replacement due to the very low power demands, and the unique nature of the “mesh network” architecture that gives ZigBee its name.

Mesh networking is like, well, the movement of bees in your garden. Data being transmitted can move from node to node to node along various network paths until it gets to its target device. If one node is out of reach or out of order, data simply travels by an alternative route. This ability to relay data from node to node not only enhances ZigBee's reliability; it also permits communication beyond the approximately 20-meter working range between individual network nodes.

Some industry watchers see ZigBee finding its first commercial successes in homes, not businesses. “ZigBee is ideal for remote monitoring of hard-to-reach things like a ceiling-mounted smoke detector or a moisture sensor in the basement,” observes Ravi Sharma, marketing manager for Ember (www.ember.com), a member of the ZigBee Alliance and maker of computer chips, networking software and a kit for use by program developers who want to apply ZigBee to specific applications. “If a ZigBee monitoring device senses a change, it can trigger an action, such as calling your cell phone,” he explains “And the batteries that power the devices can last for years.”

For the trucking industry, ZigBee also has plenty to offer. The can-do little communicator is a natural for wireless switching, sensing and controlling applications as well as for remote monitoring and reading. Think about tasks such as monitoring cargo temperature, vibration, dampness or tampering from the shipper's dock to the receiver's door, for instance, or remotely monitoring truck batteries in dealer lots or parking lots.

These are not far-fetched, “bee in the sky” visions, either. Massachusetts-based Sensitech (www.sensitech. com), an independent provider of cold-chain information and analysis to the food and pharmaceutical industries and an Ember customer, for example, has already produced a ZigBee-ready wireless data logger for use in shipping crates containing temperature-sensitive produce or medical products. According to Sensitech, the data logger allows a customer to check the temperature of each container right from the dock and before unloading the truck in order to verify that the entire load stayed within required temperature parameters all along the route.

It is no wonder that industry analysts like ABI Research (www.abiresearch.com) are predicting “explosive growth” for the ZigBee market in the months ahead. A new report from ABI forecasts shipments of about one million ZigBee devices in 2005, jumping to more than 80 million by the end of 2006. For fleets interested in using technology to add value and gain competitive advantages, this is clearly a technology to watch.

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