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New Tech Tuesdays: Thread Is a Good Icebreaker for Your Smart Home Devices Tommy Cummings

New Tech Tuesday

Join journalist Tommy Cummings for a weekly look at all things interesting, new, and noteworthy for design engineers.

Have you ever wondered why your smart home devices are so standoffish, like they don't want to play with others? If they were people, they'd seem like wallflowers at a dance. No one wants to approach anyone. It's not that these devices are rude, aloof, or shy, they're just not able to talk with each other.

To alleviate this, Thread technology was developed for smart-home products. This mesh network standard aims to make it easier for varying smart home technologies to communicate and work together.

Thread is a low-power wireless radio protocol (6LoWPAN) that makes each smart device an access point, unlike Zigbee® and Z-Wave®. Thread can support devices ranging from appliances, climate control, lighting, security, access control, and more. Each Thread-enabled device can serve as a mini-hub, which means users don't have to deal with third-party hubs.

Thread's advantages over non-Thread technologies are faster responses, improved reliability, and increased security—all while consuming less power based on power-efficient IEEE 802.15.4 MAC/PHY. Thread also has open Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), which provides device-to-device and device-to-cloud connections. Security at the network layer is built-in.

It also has no central hub connected to a router, meaning a connected home controller such as Google Assistant or Amazon Echo no longer has all the power—good news for anyone who feels these devices run our lives all too well.

More good news: Design engineers and consumers have plenty of choices to develop Thread technology from board selection of silicon, stacks, and components.

In this week's New Tech Tuesdays, we'll look at Thread-associated products from NXP Semiconductors, STMicroelectronics, and Silicon Labs.

Let's Start with These Thread-Associated Products

NXP Semiconductors K32W061 and K32W041 Wireless Microcontrollers (MCUs) are designed to power next-gen, ultra-low-current multiprotocol wireless devices. The MCUs support Thread, Zigbee 3.0, IEEE 802.15.4, and BLUETOOTH® Low Energy 5.0. The MCUs include several low-power modes and feature ultra-low Tx and Rx power consumption, making them ideal for battery-powered devices. The MCUs have configurable Tx output power and high Rx sensitivity. The MCUs are ideal for home and building automation, home security and access, smart thermostats, smart locks and lighting, sensor networks, and passive infrared (PIR) motion detectors.

The STMicroelectronics Discovery Kit with STM32WB5MMG MCU is a complete development platform with support for multi-protocol wireless and ultra-low-power requirements. It features a powerful and ultra-low-power radio compliant with the Bluetooth® Low Energy (BLE) SIG specification v5.2 and with IEEE 802.15.4-2011. The kit’s hardware supports user development of Audio, USB, user buttons, and Bluetooth® Low Energy applications. An ST-LINK/V2-1 is integrated on the board, as an embedded in-circuit debugger and programmer and extension connectors allow for easy connection of an ARDUINO® board for specific applications.

Silicon Labs' MGM13S Mighty Gecko Wireless Mesh SiP Modules offer a wireless networking solution in a compact System-in-Package (SiP) form factor. The 6.5mm x 6mm modules feature an Arm®-based on Cortex®-M4 core with 512kB Flash and up to +18dBm output power. MGM13S modules integrate all the components required for a system-level implementation of wireless IoT mesh networks. Designers will appreciate the MGM13S's radio-frequency capabilities, low energy consumption, selection of MCU peripherals, regulatory test certificates for various regions and countries, and a simplified development experience.

Tuesday's Takeaway

As we steadily build our arsenal of smart home devices, it's assuring to know that Thread technology can provide solutions for device-to-device communication. The fact that this technology also means fewer bridges and hubs—something we seem to forget when we're buying these products—is also good news.

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Tommy Cummings is a freelance writer/editor based in Texas. He's had a journalism career that has spanned more than 40 years. He contributes to Texas Monthly and Oklahoma Today magazines. He's also worked at The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, San Francisco Chronicle, and others. Tommy covered the dot-com boom in Silicon Valley and has been a digital content and audience engagement editor at news outlets. Tommy worked at Mouser Electronics from 2018 to 2021 as a technical content and product content specialist.

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