US snaps up Cambridge Zigbee portfolio

The launch of ZigBee this week moved closer when a US firm swooped for a world-leading team of Cambridge specialists.

The launch of ZigBee – a new power-efficient, low-cost wireless networking technology – this week moved closer when a US firm swooped for a world-leading team of Cambridge specialists.

Ember, a Boston pioneer in radio frequency networks, has bought the ZigBee integrated circuit technology portfolio developed at Cambridge Consultants, complete with the engineering team behind it. Ember said the UK technology should allow it to design a single integrated ZigBee chip by the middle of next year.

ZigBee is effectively a cheap and cheerful version of Bluetooth, the better-known short-range wireless networking system. It is designed to enable low-cost, low-power wireless radio links for applications such as industrial control and monitoring.

It could also end up being used to connect everyday domestic devices such as burglar alarms and central heating thermostats, and may even turn up in remote control handsets.

ZigBee – technically known as 802.15.4 – operates at a lower data rate than Bluetooth, transmitting around 250Kb/s compared to the 1Mb/s carried by its wireless cousin.

This makes it unsuitable for data-hungry demanding applications such as linking a mobile phone with a headset, but adequate for sending and receiving simple command and control signals.

Its power consumption is dramatically lower, allowing a ZigBee device to potentially run for years from a standard battery. The cost is also expected to be significantly lower than Bluetooth hardware.

A ZigBee network consists of a mains-powered master control unit and up to 255 ‘slave’ devices operating at ranges of up to about 80m.The master units can be linked together, creating super-networks of up to 4,000 slaves. These spend much of their time sleeping, carrying out activity only when ordered to do so by the master system and therefore consuming virtually no power.