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Sensors Everywhere

A 'bucket brigade' of tiny, wirelessly networked sensors someday may be able to track anything, anytime, anywhere

Some big companies are trying to make the world--and almost everything in it--smarter.

Science Applications International Corp., the big government IT contractor known as SAIC, is developing technology for the Defense and Homeland Security departments that could use hundreds of tiny, wireless sensors packed with computing power to help secure U.S. borders, bridges, power plants, and ships by detecting suspicious movements or dangerous cargo and radioing warnings back to a command center. BP plc, the world's second-largest independent oil company, aims to knock down the cost of monitoring equipment at a Washington state oil refinery, from thousands of dollars per measurement to hundreds, by replacing big, dumb, wired sensors with wireless ones in a network.

And Hewlett-Packard is experimenting with wireless networked sensors at a warehouse in Memphis, Tenn., trying to reinvent how companies manage the flow of goods. A prototype wireless network of small video-camera sensors hooked to image-recognition software works in concert with radio-frequency identification technology to make sure inventory is put in the right place. The cameras track goods as they move through the warehouse, and those images get matched with RFID tag numbers that describe them.

Wireless sensor-network technology is at the frontier of computer networking research and could be tech's next multibillion-dollar market. Today largely the domain of military-funded academic research and a handful of startups spun out of these projects, wireless sensor nets could figure prominently in the plans of multinational companies and the world's largest IT vendors.

Wireless sensor devices, or "motes," package together a circuit board with networking and application software; interfaces to sensors that can detect changes in temperature, pressure, moisture, light, sound, or magnetism; and a wireless radio that can report on their findings--all powered by a pair of AA batteries. Enabled by the fusion of small, low-cost chips, low-powered radios, and the spread of wireless networking, motes are a giant leap ahead of traditional sensors that for decades have measured everything from temperature in buildings to factory machines' vibrations. Those sensors require wiring to electrical systems, which can cost $200 to $400 per sensor, and are expensive to service. Motes cost about $100 each, and are much cheaper to install. That price could drop to less than $10 in a few years, as mote components follow computing's march toward higher volumes, better performance, and lower prices.

One breakthrough of mote technology is special "mesh networking" software that lets each device wake up for a fraction of a second when it has an interesting result to transmit, then relay that information a few yards to its nearest neighbor. So instead of every sensor transmitting its information to a remote base station, an electronic bucket brigade moves data mote by mote until it reaches a central computer where it can be stored and analyzed. Built-in logic corrects for the failure of any sensor to transmit its data by having its neighbors cover for it. The wake-up-to-transmit feature is key, since devices need to conserve power so networks can last for years unattended in the field or anywhere data gets acquired nonstop.

"This technology enabled a major advance," says Tom Sereno, a division manager at SAIC. Just 2% of the U.S. border is outfitted with ground-sensor networks that can detect illegal crossings of people or vehicles. And those sensors have shorter life spans than the wireless motes with which SAIC is developing its applications. It's using motes from Dust Networks Inc., a startup based on research originally done at the University of California at Berkeley and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, to help secure border crossings and other sensitive areas by combining the sensors, which can detect people, vehicles, voices, and motion, on a network with a tiny camera for snapping images. SAIC is working on similar applications that could use tiny, remote sensors on ships or in shipping containers to detect radiation from a nuclear weapon emitted during transit, or detect someone trying to sabotage a bridge. "Many of these things can be done now, but they require human surveillance," Sereno says. "This allows much of that to be automated."


BP aims to have thousands of wireless motes in service, says Harry Cassar, technology director in BP's emerging-tech group. Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images

BP aims to have thousands of wireless motes in service, says Harry Cassar, technology director in BP's emerging-tech group.


Photo by Brent Stirton/Getty Images
The potential for cost savings over traditional wired sensors is enormous. BP installed five wireless sensors over Christmas at its Cherry Point refinery in Washington to monitor the temperature inside giant on-site fans. Using the motes will probably cost about $1,000 per measurement point--and maybe $500 within a year or two, says Harry Cassar, technology director in BP's emerging-tech group. Each connection measured the old way cost $10,000. BP achieved the $500-per-point measurement in a test last summer to measure conditions in the engine room of an oil tanker.

And BP envisions using wireless networks of sensors to monitor industrial plants and ships, remotely adjust lighting and heat in office buildings, test soil for pollutants, and detect whether chemicals are stored properly. "Wireless mote technology has got applications in almost every part of our business," Cassar says. "We're not going to be putting in tens of these devices, or even hundreds. Ultimately, it's going to be thousands."

The technology also is gaining interest because sensor nets can be used with RFID to more cheaply identify and track goods, machinery, or hazardous chemicals. "We see IT expanding out of data centers and into buildings and factory floors," says Salil Pradhan, HP's chief technology officer for RFID. The academic world has been obsessed with making RFID tags and sensors cheap and power-efficient, Pradhan says, and the market for "multisensor fusion" is going to be huge.

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