Thursday, February 17, 2011

Using the Microchip ZENA ZigBee/802.15.4 network analyzer with Linux

Summary: The Microchip Technologies Inc ZENA is a 2.4GHz 802.15.4 (ZigBee, MiWi etc) network analyzer. It comes with free Windows-only software. There is no support for Linux and cannot be used with powerful tools like Wireshark. There is very little documentation available for the device hardware. In this post I've documented reverse engineering efforts by myself and others and present a small C utility for pcap packet capture on the Linux platform. 
Update (23 July 2013): Mr-TI has written an updated version of this tool to work with the latest version of the ZENA hardware:

Update (3 Mar 2012): This article was originally written in Feb 2011. Microchip have just released a new version of the ZENA which comes in a USB 'thumbdrive' casing. This new version is based on their own MRF24J40 transceiver chip. This article relates to the older model.

The ZENA is a 802.15.4 network analyzer from Microchip Technologies Inc. It costs about $130.  It comes with free (closed source) Windows software. If you need encryption support you'll need to separately purchase an enhanced version of the ZENA software for $5.

The Windows ZENA isn't bad. It displays plackets as horizontal slabs and color codes each part of the packet. There is some basic filtering functions. For more comprehensive reviews see [1] and [2]. If you need to use this with Linux or you need a long packet capture you're out of luck. The export from the Windows software is limited to about 21 kB of data at a time.

Documentation on the hardware and USB protocol is scant. Joshua Wright did some reverse engineering work on the ZENA back in 2009 and wrote a Python script that selected a 802.15.4 channel of your choice and dumped raw data from the USB port to the screen. Due to the relatively high cost and limitations (packet injection not possible) of the ZENA his work on this device as shelved in favor of the cheaper and more flexible alternatives (eg Atmel's RZUSBStick)

I've taken Joshua's work and brought it to a point where it can be used to capture long ZigBee packet dumps in pcap format and analyze them with Wireshark.

The ZENA hardware

The ZENA comprises 75mm x 40mm PCB with a PIC 18LF2550 MCU clocked at 16MHz, a MRF24J40   CC2420 2.4GHz 802.15.4 radio transceiver, PCB antenna (with the option of installing a SMA connector for external antenna) and a mini-USB port to communicate with the host computer and provide power for the device.

The PCB seems to have been designed with other applications in mind also, having an unused area for a button cell on the underside and pads for switches on top. For some odd reason the MRF24J20 chip is unmarked.  Update: I've been informed that the ZENA predated Microchip's own MRF24J40 so the Texas Instruments CC2420 chip (originally made by Chipcon before being acquired by TI) was used instead. The markings must have been removed by Microchip for commercial reasons but are still just visible under the right light.

There are 3 green LEDs marked D2, D4 and D3. D2 appears to be a heartbeat which flashes with a one second on / one second off duty cycle while the ZENA is in sniffer mode. The rhythm is disrupted whenever a packet is received. D3 also flashes with network activity but I cannot deduce a pattern. D4 is illuminated only during the powerup test sequence.

ZENA USB Protocol

The ZENA (vendor ID 0x04d8 , product ID 0x000E) presents itself as a Human Interface Device (HID).

"lsusb" is a useful utility to discover metadata about USB devices. The following command will dump information about the ZENA to screen: "lsusb -v -d 04d8:000e". This output looks like this (I've highlighted lines of interest in bold):

Bus 002 Device 003: ID 04d8:000e Microchip Technology, Inc. 
Device Descriptor:
  bLength                18
  bDescriptorType         1
  bcdUSB               2.00
  bDeviceClass            0 (Defined at Interface level)
  bDeviceSubClass         0 
  bDeviceProtocol         0 
  bMaxPacketSize0         8
  idVendor           0x04d8 Microchip Technology, Inc.
  idProduct          0x000e 
  bcdDevice            0.00
  iManufacturer           1 
  iProduct                2 
  iSerial                 0 
  bNumConfigurations      1
  Configuration Descriptor:
    bLength                 9
    bDescriptorType         2
    wTotalLength           41
    bNumInterfaces          1
    bConfigurationValue     1
    iConfiguration          0 
    bmAttributes         0x80
      (Bus Powered)
    MaxPower              100mA
    Interface Descriptor:
      bLength                 9
      bDescriptorType         4
      bInterfaceNumber        0
      bAlternateSetting       0
      bNumEndpoints           2
      bInterfaceClass         3 Human Interface Device
      bInterfaceSubClass      0 No Subclass
      bInterfaceProtocol      0 None
      iInterface              0 
        HID Device Descriptor:
          bLength                 9
          bDescriptorType        33
          bcdHID               1.01
          bCountryCode            0 Not supported
          bNumDescriptors         1
          bDescriptorType        34 Report
          wDescriptorLength      34
         Report Descriptors: 
           ** UNAVAILABLE **
      Endpoint Descriptor:
        bLength                 7
        bDescriptorType         5
        bEndpointAddress     0x81  EP 1 IN
        bmAttributes            3
          Transfer Type            Interrupt
          Synch Type               None
          Usage Type               Data
        wMaxPacketSize     0x0040  1x 64 bytes
        bInterval               1
      Endpoint Descriptor:
        bLength                 7
        bDescriptorType         5
        bEndpointAddress     0x01  EP 1 OUT
        bmAttributes            3
          Transfer Type            Interrupt
          Synch Type               None
          Usage Type               Data
        wMaxPacketSize     0x0040  1x 64 bytes
        bInterval               1

USBSnoop and usbmon are another useful tools which can be used to eavesdrop on USB traffic when used with the supplied Windows software.

This is what I know about the ZENA USB interface so far (lots gleaned from Joshua Wright's blog post and the Python script linked above):
  • There are two end points: a control channel (0x01) and a packet channel (0x81)
  • There is only one known control function: to select a 802.15.4 channel in the range 11 to 26. This is achieved by allocating a 64 byte buffer, zeroing it and setting the channel number (11 to 26) in byte offset 1 (second byte of the buffer). Send this to the control end point 0x01 using  usb_interrupt_write()
  • To read 802.15.4 packet data allocate a 64 byte buffer and issue a usb_interrupt_read() to end point 0x81. If there are no packets available, usb_interrupt_read() will block until a packet arrives or the timeout period is reached. A timeout can be detected by checking the return status for -110.
  • The first 6 bytes in the buffer are a ZENA header. Byte 0 is always 0x00. 
  • ZENA header bytes 1 - 4 is a packet timestamp. Bytes 1 and 2 is the fraction of a second in 2^-16 second units (first byte is the least significant). Bytes 3 and 4 is the seconds part of the timestamp.
  • ZENA header byte 5 is the number of bytes of data remaining. The remaining data at this point is the 802.15.4 packet data (excluding FCS) plus two reception quality bytes at the end.
  • If the length field is greater than 58 bytes then one or more additional usb_interrupt_read() requests must be issued to retrieve the remaining data. The data will continue at byte offset 1 (for some reason the first byte returned by usb_interrupt_read() to this device is always 0x00)
  • The ZENA does not return the 802.15.4 FCS. You will need to recompute it if you need it. It does however return a single FCS OK bit in the last byte of the data.
  • Instead of the FCS, the last two bytes is reception quality information: I assume the values are as described in the MRF 24J40 datasheet (see sections 3.7 and 3.6) CC2420 datasheet section 16.4: "The first FCS byte is replaced by the 8-bit RSSI value. This RSSI value is measured over the first 8 symbols following the SFD... The 7 least significant bits in the last FCS byte are replaced by the average correlation value of the 8 first symbols of the received PHY header (length field) and PHY Service Data Unit (PSDU). This correlation value may be used as a basis for calculating the LQI."

The LQI and RSSI values from a sample packet capture look like this:

The ZENA command line utility

I've opted to use plain C instead of Python. I'm more familiar (albeit very rusty) with C and it eliminates dependency on Python and PyUSB. You will still require libusb and associated development files which may not be installed by default. I am currently using libusb version 0.1. I plan to move to the more recent version 1.0 for the next release. The file can be downloaded from the download area at

To install on Ubuntu make sure libusb (version 0.1) is installed:
sudo apt-get install libusb libusb-dev

To compile just do:
gcc -o zena zena.c -lusb -lrt

(Update 20 Feb 2011:  version 0.2+ of the zena utility has slightly different dependencies and compile instructions. See comments near the top of the C file on how to compile and run.)

To run:

You'll probably need to be logged in as root to do all of these things. On Ubuntu you can do
sudo bash
to avoid prefixing everything with "sudo".

Prior to running you need to make sure the ZENA device is "unbound" from any kernel drivers. If you get a "ERROR: ZENA device not found or not accessible", that is likely your problem.  I would love to be able to check for this and unbind programatically, but I don't know how to go about it. Suggestions welcome. (Update 20 Feb 2011: It is possible to check if a device is bound to a kernel driver and unbind it in libusb 1.0 using libusb_kernel_driver_active() and libusb_detach_kernel_driver() functions. This will be incorporated in the next release – version 0.3).

This is how to "unbind" it: While ZENA is *not* plugged in, look at files in /sys/bus/usb/drivers/usbhid/
There should be files eg "1-3.1:1.0". Now connect the ZENA. You will find a new file in that directory. Make note of it. For this example assume it’s "1-3.3:1.0". Now do:

echo 1-3.3:1.0 > /sys/bus/usb/drivers/usbhid/unbind

(replace the "1-3.3:1.0" with whatever you find for your system)

Once the device is available you can run the zena utility.

zena -c channel [-f format] [-v] [-h] [-d level] [-h]

-c selects 802.15.4 channel and is mandatory. A number between 11 and 26 is expected.

-f selects packet dump format. Two output formats are supported:
  • pcap (default):  packet capture file which can then be imported into Wireshark and other tools
  • usbhex: this dumps the raw 64 byte chunks of data obtained from the USB port in hex. One line per 64 byte chunk. Each chunk is prefixed with a timestamp obtained from the host computer
-v will display version information and quit.
-h will display usage information and quit.
-d will display debugging information to stderr. A level of 0 implies no debugging (default), 9 maximum verbosity.

The packet capture output is sent to standard output.

Important note: I have observed kernel crashes running this utility on a fully updated (15 Feb 2011) Ubuntu 10.4 (kernel 2.6.32-28-generic).  A fresh Ubuntu 10.10 (kernel 2.6.35-22-generic) installed from CD image seems not to be affected by this problem.  I can only assume it's a bug in the USB part of the kernel. I suggest bringing the computer to single user mode when you try this the first time (or just be prepared to power cycle if you have to). Alternatively install Linux in a VM, attach the ZENA device to the VM and run from there: the kernel crash is contained within the VM. The Python script which this utility is based on also causes a similar crash -- so it's not specific to my implementation. (Update 22 Feb 2011: this seems not to happen any more since the move to libusb 1.0)

No binary is provided at this time. But it's trivial to build if you have gcc and libusb installed.

Corrections or additional information would be greatly appreciated. I'd be glad to expand this utility to use the ZENA to it's full potential. Let me know what you need.

Project files are hosted at Google:

I can be contacted at jdesbonnet (at) gmail (dot) com


ZENA is a trademark of Microchip Technologies Inc.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Battery monitoring using a diode/LED and resistor

Summary: A common problem with wireless battery powered sensors is knowing when the battery is about to expire in sufficient time to replace the battery before it fails. This post outlines a method that achieves this with nothing more than one resistor, one diode (or LED), one ADC input and one digital output. A practical application using a PIC 12F675 is described and some results presented.

There are many approaches to the problem of gauging a battery State-of-Charge (SoC) or battery low indicator. Modern "smart batteries" maintain a SoC by use of complex algorithms combining battery/cell voltage, 'coulomb counting' and a battery charge/discharge history.

For small devices based on microcontrollers (MCUs) like the PIC 12F675 the only practical metric is battery voltage under load. But measuring this is not as straight forward as it may first seem.

Many MCU analog to digital converters (ADCs) will measure from 0V up to power supply voltage (Vbat or Vdd). Therefore connecting the ADC to the battery will always report the full scale value (Amax) by definition. Not very useful.

Here is an idea:

Between Vbat and 0V connect a resistor and diode in series. Connect the center point (Vd) to the ADC. Vd is voltage drop across the diode which will be a constant value – about 0.7V for a silicon diode. If A is the ADC reading, and Amax is the full scale value of the ADC then Vbat = Amax * Vd /A.

As the battery voltage dwindles the value of A will increase because the fixed diode voltage drop (Vd) forms a bigger fraction of Vbat.

The design can be further improved: in the above configuration, current (I = (Vbat - Vd) / R) is being continuously drawn which will have a detrimental effect on battery life. Current is only required to flow when a measurement is being taken. So the resistor + diode circuit is connected to digital output line (Dout) instead. When set to logic 0 no current will flow. When set to logic 1 the voltage applied will be almost the same as Vbat.

A further improvement is to replace the silicon diode with a LED.  This way the battery measurement circuit can double as a visual indicator (eg a periodic heartbeat).

One point to note about LEDs: the junction voltage drop (Vd) is significantly higher than that of a silicon diode and varies considerably depending on the color and chemistry (about 1.7V for red and as much as 4V for other 'exotic' colors). You will need to consult the manufacturer's datasheet or measure it yourself (most digital multimeters have this function). Also bear in mind that the diode voltage drop needs to be less than the application's minimum supply voltage, which might rule out use of green or blue LEDs if operating on 2 x NiMH cells in series.

Here is a real application – a wireless environment sensor powered by 2 x AAA NiMH cells in series using a PIC12F675  MCU. The sensor unit periodically transmits environment data to a receiver which is directly connected a server running data acquisition software.

The LED is a typical red LED (Vd = 1.7V) and the series resistor is 3.3kΩ. The radio transmitter is a Holy Stone Enterprise Co. MO-SAWR-A (sold by SparkFun, SKU WRL-08945 @ $4 each). The environment sensor circuitry has been omitted as it's not relevant to this post.

The 12F675 has just 6 IO/analog pins so it's important to maximize use of each pin. In this configuration, pin GP4 is configured as a digital output and serves three functions:
  • Applies a voltage to the resistor-diode network for battery voltage measurement
  • Illuminates a red indicator LED
  • Acts as the baseband signal input to the radio module (a high impedance input, so it will not interfere with the battery measurements)
A desirable side-effect of this arrangement is the LED will illuminate every time the radio is used. This serves as heartbeat / activity indicator.

Another desirable side-effect is that the the transition from logic 0 to logic 1 will energize the radio module, drawing a relatively large current (about 10mA, compared to about 0.5mA consumed by an active 12F675). Battery voltage is best measured under the maximum possible load for the application. (A completely depleted battery can still show a healthy 'open circuit' voltage). Since the radio module requires a 20ms warm up period prior to transmitting data, I use this opportunity to take a battery voltage measurement, ensuring that none of the precious battery charge goes to waste.

The following chart is what the battery voltage vs time look like. I'm assuming Vd is 1.7V.

The chart looks like the classic NiMH/NiCd battery discharge curve (which is similar to alkaline cells too). There is an initial voltage drop at the start of the cycle, followed by a relatively flat curve for most of the discharge cycle and a sudden drop near the end of the charge cycle. If you're curious about the small 'bumps' see footnote [1].

In applications such as laptops and electric cars it's important to know the State-of-Charge at any point in time (as a percentage, kWh, miles or time remaining depending on the application). In my application this is not important. All I require is to get an battery low alert in sufficient time to act on it (a few days will do).

So how to determine the battery low condition? And who's job is figure this out – the hardware constrained sensor/transmitter MCU or the substantially more powerful receiver/data acquisition server. Or both?

Making the battery low determination at the data acquisition end has the advantage of having a powerful CPU with megabytes of RAM available for the task. It makes sense to transmit the battery voltage as part of the data packet for this purpose. But my sensor unit only has a radio transmitter, so it's not possible to communicate the battery low status back to it.

Ideally whatever algorithm is used should be simple enough to run on the limited resources of the sensor MCU. Detecting battery low condition here has advantages. For example it could conserve charge by decreasing the sampling frequency.

I can see two approaches:

  • An absolute battery voltage threshold
  • A rate of change of battery voltage threshold

In theory the absolute voltage threshold is simple to implement. You figure out what is the minimum voltage required for reliable operation (about 2.2V in this application). Then add 100mV or 200mV to that value to arrive at the battery low threshold. The problem with this approach is that the threshold may be in the rapidly decaying part of the battery discharge curve giving little or no useful warning. If set too high the warning kicks in way too early. Getting this right is going to be tricky.

The rate of change approach has its own problems. Here is a chart of the rate of change of ADC values vs time with ADC vs time for comparison. Remember that ADC values increase as the battery voltage decreases.

The problem is the difference between ADC readings from one sample to the next is most likely going to be exactly zero ­– there is insufficient resolution available in the ADC. Some sort of low pass filter (LPF) or sub-sampling needs to be applied to the signal first. The following is mean ADC values in 1 hour bins and the time derivative of that.

Setting a dADC/dt threshold of 2 units / hour will catch the end of battery decay, with perhaps the odd false alarm (eg at day 18). But the capability of performing 1 hour averages is pushing the capability of the 12F675 (considering all the other tasks that need to be performed must be stuffed into its tiny 1Kbyte program memory). Sub-sampling is an alternative. This chart was obtained by sampling one in every 360 samples:

It can be seen to be almost identical to the 1 hour bin chart. Sub-sampling is certainly do-able on a 12F675.

Unfortunately I don't yet have enough data to decide which approach is best. Each battery discharge cycle is over two weeks long and right now I have only one sensor utilizing 2 x AAA cells. It has been running since November 2010. Interestingly a second identical sensor powered by 4 x high capacity AA NiMH cells has been running continuously on the same discharge cycle since November 2010 (it's now February 2011)!

I will post a further analysis when more data has been obtained.


Measuring the ADC value of the voltage drop across a diode (signal diode or LED) seems to be a feasible way of gauging the battery voltage of a battery powered device. In a hardware constrained MCU like the PIC12F675 the measurement circuit can double as a LED indicator (and other functions) making maximum use of precious IO pins.

However translating this voltage to a reliable State-of-Charge or battery low indicator is a trickier problem and not one that I've fully solved yet.

Footnote 1: It is interesting to note there are small 'bumps' on an otherwise smooth voltage-time curve. It can be seen to correlate with ambient temperature. I'm assuming this is due to the effect of temperature on cell voltage.