June 2006

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Richard G Hoptroff, Managing Director, FlexiPanel LtdEMAIL INTERVIEWRichard Hoptroff & Ken Sinclair

Richard G Hoptroff, Managing Director, FlexiPanel Ltd

 Richard is Managing Director of FlexiPanel Ltd based in London. UK.  Prior to founding FlexiPanel, he managed forecasting software company Right Information Systems Ltd from startup to its acquisition by Cognos Incorporated.  He graduated from the University of London with a PhD in Theoretical Physics.

FlexiPanel partners with Microchip Technology

Partnership to reduce the cost of automating buildings with ZigBee.

New Products
Past Issues

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Sinclair:  How does working with Microchip reduce automation costs?

Hoptroff:  A lot of off-the-shelf ZigBee solutions are what I would call fait-accompli modules.  They might keep the interface simple, but you need to add an external processor to customize them to specific product requirements.  Microchip provides all the source code for their ZigBee stack, making it easy to develop solutions on-board, with no external processor cost.  And their range of PIC microcontrollers is just right for building automation – very low cost, but great peripheral features such analog to digital conversion built in.

We complete the picture by turning Microchip’s offering into a range of standard building blocks such as certified RF front ends, data acquisition interfaces, USB adapters, etc.  Plus we’re offering a range of firmware for standard applications such as switching and serial communication.  These solutions are being designed into some very exciting projects, including some of the largest civil engineering structures in the world.

Sinclair:  What have the challenges been?

Hoptroff:  At the start, ZigBee looked like a great technology, but it seemed like everybody wanted to use it a different way.  It was difficult to build up a coherent picture of the basic building blocks that would suit 95% of customers.  It’s come into focus a lot more now. 

You could probably guess some of the challenges, such as making battery power a realistic option.  But other issues weren’t nearly so obvious.  For example, many customers wanted to put their products in enclosures which were totally unsuitable for from an RF perspective.  So we developed the Puck Pixie, a waterproof, vandal-proof ZigBee module the size of a hockey puck.  You can attach it onto the side of, well, just about anything really.

Another common requirement is the occasional long-distance ZigBee node.  Take for example a building that has a garage or security post 500 yards away.  Getting a battery powered unit to send a signal that far as part of a mesh network is not so easy.  So we have a parabolic dish solution in development.  The whole ZigBee module is actually at the focus of the dish.  It’s quite a neat solution.

Sinclair:  What has been your customer’s experience of ZigBee so far?

Hoptroff:  Well, compare it to Bluetooth, which is a business we’ve been in for quite a few years.  Bluetooth took ages to achieve mass adoption. It was a long time before it was affordable for all but the highest volume product lines.

ZigBee, by contrast, has really been thrust into the limelight in the last year.  If anything, the problem was that customers were getting too excited by it before the dust has even settled on ZigBee Spec 1.0.  Customers had high expectations of easy-to-implement, market-ready solutions, but vendors are only just getting there now.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Sinclair:  Where do you see the real market opportunities in building automation?

Hoptroff:  I see big money is in the simple stuff.  Turning things on and off, taking a few readings.  Exactly what’s been going on in buildings all along, only now you don’t need the wires.  In a few years nobody will even think of burying a cable in a wall for a light switch.

We’ve got a range of switching and data acquisition products to address this market.  It’s great now they’re simple enough for an electrician to install, but technology isn’t everything.   We need partners within the building automation industry to work with us in winning the market.  The wireless future needs to emerge from today’s brands and channels, otherwise it will be difficult for customers to accept.

Sinclair:  What hot new stuff do you have brewing in the R&D department?

Hoptroff:  Well we’re never short of new ideas, but not all of them reach the commercial light of day.  Probably the most exciting are radiolocation systems and linear networks.  With radiolocation, you can trace the location of mobile nodes within a grid of a square kilometer or so.  In asset tracking applications, it fills the gap between GPS, which has a resolution of tens of meters, and RFID, which has a range of about a meter.  We just need to get the cost down so you can stick one on every shopping cart.

      Linear networks target one of ZigBee’s weaknesses.  ZigBee is great for robust, compact meshes in buildings.  But if you wanted to string out a line of nodes along Route 66, ZigBee wouldn’t get you out of downtown Chicago.  If we can get it to stretch to Los Angeles, I know a couple of utility providers who would get excited.


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