IoT Companies Moving to Open Standards

A new Internet of Things working group, known as Project Connected Home over IP, is including a Thread 802.15.4 open protocol layer in its standards development, while Thread is also being built into Farm Jenny's horse-tracking solution and Galeries Lafayette's smart hanger system for store displays.
Published: January 31, 2020

Several of the largest technology companies, along with the Zigbee Alliance, launched a working group in December 2019 to create an Internet of Thing (IoT) connectivity standard, known as Project Connected Home over IP (Project CHIP). The project is aimed at easing the way for device manufacturers to create products that can connect with other IoT systems.

As part of the effort to develop interoperable IoT solutions, Project CHIP designated the Thread protocol as a network layer for low-power devices. Project CHIP’s universal application layer, intended to enable devices to communicate with each other, will run over the Thread mesh network. Thread Group, which liaisons with the Zigbee Alliance, views that as a validation and a compliment to the network layer and the convergence and interoperability benefits that it offers to IoT companies.

For one thing, Project CHIP uses the same IP-centric approach that Thread Group has pursued since its launch several years ago, according to Grant Erickson, Thread Group’s president. Thread provides an IP-bearing wireless mesh network, he says, that supports one or more IP-based IoT applications. Product designers have been using the network layer for building products enabling multiple technologies to seamlessly operate on a single system.

Thread is a low-power mesh-networking technology based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard. It traditionally competes with other IoT protocols, including Zigbee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5 and Z-Wave, but the open standard enables devices to exchange data with other IP-based systems. Because Thread is IP-based, it allows devices to transmit data directly to the cloud and other mobile devices via IP-based routing.

Throughout the past year, Erickson says, Thread Group has been growing its membership and releasing new specifications, and companies have recently launched or piloted several solutions leveraging Thread’s network layer. Thread Group has also added new members to its board of directors, such as Apple and Lutron.

In the meantime, Project CHIP includes Amazon, Apple, Google and the Zigbee Alliance, as well as Schneider Electric and Signify (formerly called Philips Lighting). The project is aimed at enabling systems using IoT technologies that include Thread.

“We’re flattered that Thread will be one of the preferred IP-bearing networks in the application layer,” Erickson states. He predicts that this inclusion will benefit product manufacturers and consumers alike, adding, “Thread is a prescribed specific part of the overall strategy” for smart-building- and smart-home-based solutions. But Thread-based solutions venture beyond smart homes and smart buildings. For instance, Paris-based retailer Galleries Lafayette has partnered with French design consultancy Blue Griot to develop a connected hanger.

Galerie Lafayette’s store in Champs Elysees can share content with shoppers as they browse through garments, while reducing the volume of goods on display, thereby providing a sleek and simpler display. The system consists of approximately 2,000 smart hangers on which the retailer displays select products. Each hanger has a built-in touch screen and a Near Field Communication (NFC) reader, as well as a Thread protocol-based radio and motion detector.

Display garments are tagged with 13.56 MHz NFC labels compliant with the ISO 14443 standard. As each garment is placed on a hanger, that hanger’s reader captures the unique ID number of the item’s tag. The tag ID is linked to the product’s information in the system’s cloud-based software. The hanger uses its Thread connectivity to transmit the tag ID to the server, where the software creates a link between the hanger and the clothing. The hanger comes with a motion sensor that can detect when it is being moved. In that way, the hanger knows when an NFC-tagged garment is being removed, or if the hanger itself is being lifted from the display.

Based on the motion sensor and NFC data, the system displays information about that product for the shopper on its built-in touch screen. It also displays options related to available colors and sizes for that garment. The customer can select the size and color she or he would like to try on, and the request is then forwarded to sales employee via an app. The worker then greets the customer, escorts her or him to a fitting room and brings the garments requested to that individual. The system has been piloted, Erickson says, and is still in use at the Paris store. “It was a great innovative use of Thread,” he states.

Thread’s network layer is also being utilized for agricultural solutions. Farm Jenny is a farm technology company that is leveraging the technology to track horses and other livestock. The solution consists of IoT tags that can be attached to each animal, which transmit data via the Thread frequency. The device, which is battery-powered, captures sensor-based data regarding the movements and activities of a particular animal, then periodically transmits that data to solar-powered, wireless gateways that could be installed around a coral, pasture or indoor facility.

The gateways forward information via a cellular connection to a server, where software manages the collected data and can prompt alerts in the event of a problem, such as an unusual rise or drop in activity levels. The system also includes an app so that those with mobile devices can track each animal’s activity, even if he or she isn’t physically with the animal. The mobile device can act as a gateway by receiving transmission data from the animal’s sensor, and then forwarding that data to the cloud.

In June 2019, the company released its latest specification, known as Thread 1.2, with three main features: low power enhancements, commercial extensions and Bluetooth extensions. The new spec offers lower power consumption than the previous version, which could provide another year or more of battery life in certain conditions and installations. The spec also enables commercial extensions that enable enhanced commissioning and life-cycle management for enterprise and commercial environments, as well as mobility and scalability to manage many physical Thread networks as one, with seamless migration of devices.

In addition, the new spec provides for Bluetooth extensions. Those features allow the standardized commissioning of a Thread device over Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and enable the adding of a BLE-only device, such as a mobile phone, directly onto a Thread network. Since Thread was launched, Google and other companies have innovated with systems (such as Nest) that pair a Thread device with BLE. The system also allows point-to-point BLE links to bring data into the Thread network. That means a BLE-enabled radio could communicate with devices using a Thread network. The new specification is expected to be released during the first quarter of 2020.