What Is a USB XBee®?

N. Kalu

A USB Xbee® is a small electronic device that connects a Universal Serial Bus (USB) port to an Xbee® radio. Xbee® radios are frequently used by electronic hobbyists, especially in conjunction with the open source Arduino® platform. Xbee® radios allow devices to communicate distances between 100 and 300 feet (about 30 and 90 meters), depending on conditions. The radios work best with a direct line of sight between the devices that are communicating with one another.

Xbee® radios are frequently used by electronic hobbyists, especially in conjunction with the open source Arduino® platform.
Xbee® radios are frequently used by electronic hobbyists, especially in conjunction with the open source Arduino® platform.

USB Xbee® allows a computer, cell phone, or other USB capable device to interface with the radio. This means that these devices not otherwise equipped with Xbee® radios will be able to use an Xbee® radio to communicate remotely with another computer, cell phone, or Arduino® invention. Arduino® devices can also use Xbee® radios to communicate between themselves without the need for an USB device.

The Arduino® platform uses open source hardware, and the USB Xbee® is a common component for that hardware. As such, it is widely available from a variety of manufacturers and retailers. This arrangement helps to ensure that the cost is relatively low compared to similar components of closed-source electronics platforms. Although the Xbee® radio itself cannot easily be assembled at home, the other components necessary to create it are available at electronic supply stores.

Any project that needs to communicate over a significant distance could use an USB Xbee&reg radio. One example is a remote control car that takes instructions from a smartphone. Another is an outdoor wireless weather station that interfaces to a computer to alert the user of sudden changes to outdoor conditions. A more practical possibility is a device to wirelessly change complex arrangements of Christmas lights without leaving the home or running a control cable out to the lights.

There are two common alternatives to USB Xbee®. One of these is Bluetooth®, a short range wireless communications protocol typically used with cell phones or accessories. Common applications include wireless keyboards and wireless headsets. Although Bluetooth® has more bandwidth than Xbee® radios and is already supported by many cell phones and some computers, its effective range is about 12 feet (3.66 m), even with a line of sight.

Another alternative is WiFi®, a high bandwidth connection commonly supported on laptops and smart phones. Wifi® typically has a similar range to Xbee® and may already be installed in the location that the Arduino® invention will be used. These networks use more power and may be more difficult to configure.

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