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What Is The Best Network For Wireless Sensors?
This question has been asked repeatedly by clients and seen on forums. Unfortunately, there is no answer. Each network has its own specific strengths and weaknesses. So what is best depends on the application.
Although there are many network technologies that can be used for wireless sensors, the most popular ones are – Wi-Fi, ZigBee and Bluetooth. These networks each have similarities in accommodating and managing wireless sensors; Each is designed for short-range wireless communication; And each operates in the open 2.4GHz radio frequency (RF) range. Beyond these similarities there are significant differences. Understanding the key differences between network technologies makes the choice much easier.
There are three factors that are used as rules-of-thumb to quickly determine the best network for a particular sensor application. They are network bandwidth, power consumption and radio transmission range. Bandwidth is the maximum throughput of data on a network, measured in bits per second. In terms of data flow, more and faster is usually better. Power consumption refers to how much power is required to operate sensor electronics and transmit over a given network. Effective distance range over which a radio signal travels.
The relationship between these three technology elements is key to understanding their differences. For instance, as network bandwidth increases, power consumption increases. The same applies to coverage. As the radio range increases, so does the power requirement. It is therefore essential to understand the sensor application requirements, such as how many sensors, how far apart they are from each other, and roughly what dates the network is expected to operate.
Like all products, each network is designed to solve a specific problem. Wi-Fi’s main purpose was to provide a high-speed wireless replacement for the Ethernet cables used to connect PCs in local area networks (LANs). Wi-Fi has a bandwidth of 11 megabits per second while occupying five (5) channels in the 2.4 GHz band. It is suitable for PC and smart devices that transmit large data files like videos, games, music, images, etc. The effective range of the Wi-Fi device is 32 meters indoors and 70 meters outdoors.
The down side to Wi-Fi is that it takes more power to transmit 11 megabits over five channels. A laptop, tablet or smartphone can last only two hours if not plugged into an AC outlet. In relative terms, Wi-Fi is a power hog.
ZigBee, on the other hand, is designed specifically for battery-powered wireless sensors. A key aspect of ZigBee is energy conservation, with power management features designed into the platform. Battery-powered sensors may need to operate for months or years without needing to recharge or replace the batteries. ZigBee achieves this in several ways. First, sensor data packets are typically 250 bytes or less. It is a part of music files, games and videos found on a Wi-Fi network. Second, ZigBee devices can sleep when not in use. This is called duty cycling. For example, if a temperature sensor takes a measurement once a minute, the sensor takes a reading and transmits the results in typically less than 100 milliseconds. Then for the remaining 900 milliseconds the device is duty cycled to conserve power.
ZigBee is an idea for battery-powered wireless sensors where the number of nodes in the network is limited (typically less than 50) and the network data traffic is fairly low. Network performance decreases dramatically as network traffic and the number of network devices increase. This is because ZigBee transmission rate is 250 kbits or about 1/44th that of a Wi-Fi network and uses only one channel. The transmission range is similar to Wi-Fi, with an outdoor range of about 100 meters.
Bluetooth is a platform developed by Ericsson in 1994 as a Personal Area Network (PAN) for secure wireless communication between personal devices. Considering Ericsson manufactures cell phones they need a high speed wireless device to connect the wireless headset to the cell phone. They had two conflicting considerations, the headset was battery powered and they needed relatively high bandwidth.
Bluetooth solves this dilemma by making two adjustments. First, they set the bandwidth to three megabits per second. This rate is significantly lower than Wi-Fi but is fully capable of handling audio communication between individual devices. However, three megabits will drain the battery fairly quickly. So the second modification he made was to reduce the radio transmission range to 10 meters. Transmitting a 10 meter signal takes significantly less power than the 70 meters found in other networks.
Bluetooth has emerged as the preferred technology for wireless communication between personal electronic devices such as Nintendo’s Wii, PlayStation 3, wireless mice, keyboards and printers. The advantage of Bluetooth is relatively high bandwidth and low power consumption. The down side to Bluetooth in a wireless sensor network is that up to seven nodes can be connected at once and they must be relatively close together.
So which is better?
After this brief explanation, it seems that ZigBee is used in most wireless sensor applications because it was built specifically for that purpose. Mostly this is true. However, there are a large number of applications where Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is a better choice. If the network consists of PCs, smart phones, tablets and sensors that require high bandwidth, Wi-Fi is usually the best network. If the network consists of a wireless, battery-powered sensor, ZigBee is usually a good choice. If the network is connecting seven or fewer personal devices, such as headsets to a cell phone, controllers for the Wii, or a wireless keyboard to your PC, then use Bluetooth. As with any rule there are plenty of exceptions, but this is a good place to start.
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