Wireless sensor networks grabbing greater attention

Amid the venture capitalists, engineering wizards and marketing gurus at last week’s Wireless Sensing Solutions conference were two State Farm Insurance Co. employees on a mission to learn about the event’s namesake technology.

Ted Dorner, data centre manager for a large insurance company in Alpharetta, Ga., and Mark Clauss, an accounts payable superintendent at the home office in Bloomington, Ill., both serve on a task group that weighs the possible effect of emerging technologies on the company and its customers.

They said the possibilities of wireless sensor networks — meshes of tiny monitoring and measurement devices with battery-powered radios — are intriguing.

“Costs are always an issue for an insurance company,” Clauss said. “Are there ways we can reduce the number of losses or the dollar amount of those losses” by using wireless sensors? Imagine using sensors to detect the building up of creosote in a chimney before a fire could be ignited or the falling temperature of a water pipe before it burst, Clauss said.

Clauss cautioned that there would be plenty of privacy, standards and other issues to think about before getting to that point.

Dorner agreed: “We’re just doing pure research right now.”

Plenty to choose from

There’s plenty to do research on these days when it comes to wireless sensor networks, as was evidenced at the show. New products, many from start-ups such as Cirronet Inc., Crossbow Technology Inc. and Dust Networks, are plentiful.

A growing number of products are based on an emerging specification from the 100-member strong ZigBee Alliance. Several vendors now offer “ZigBee-ready” radio chipsets and protocol stacks.

Another forum that is expected to support wireless sensor networks is in the works as well. Boston University last week announced the planned Nov. 12 launch of the Sensor Network Consortium, a partnership of universities and vendors pledged to sponsor research and development and facilitate the growth of the sensor network industry. Founding members include L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., Sensicast Systems Inc., United Technologies Corp. and Honeywell International Inc., whose CTO for the automation and control solutions group was the keynote speaker at last week’s conference.

Honeywell, like other process and industrial controls companies, is recasting product lines with wireless technologies. “We can’t think of any segment of the industry that isn’t going to be impacted by this,” said CTO Dan Shiflin.

But users at the conference were keenly aware that wireless sensor technology is a means to an end.

“You don’t ask people: ‘How would you use ZigBee?’ Because they don’t know,” said Ken Douglas, recently named BP International’s first director of technology and sensory networks, in the oil company’s chief technology office. “But if you ask them: ‘How would you use information that you can now access for the first time?’ They have to think about it for a bit, but then the ideas just starting pouring out.”

Cement and sugar beets

The conference overflowed with ideas, a number of which had that all-too-rare quality of being unique.

One involved cement, another sugar beets.

Rick Kriss, CEO of Xsilogy Inc., described an application that involves embedding a Xsilogy sensor, coupled with a Bluetooth radio, into cement as it is poured to form a concrete piling. When the cured piling is slammed into the ground by massive hydraulic hammers, the sensor readings pick up characteristics of the waveform created by the impact and reflected by the surrounding soil. The data is transmitted to a nearby gateway and analyzed.

The reading shows the kind of soil on which the piling is grounded and the piling’s load carrying capacity. That information can reduce the number of pilings and the amount of concrete in big construction projects, saving millions of dollars, Kriss said. The Xsilogy sensor comes with a 30-minute warranty that starts running with the first hammer blow.

Alex Warner, founder and president of Pedigree Technologies, a start-up still in stealth mode, described how a major U.S. sugar cooperative endures losses of US$16 million per year because football field-sized collections of sugar beets, mounded nearly 30 feet high, begin to respire, lose sugar content, heat up and spoil.

Pedigree has created a pilot network that uses wireless 802.15.4 sensors to detect a heat spike and pass along an alert to a radio gateway at the top of the heap. The gateway transmits the alert and the co-op then can shift its processing priorities or send in a “fire team” to use various methods to cool down the mound.

Ultimately, real-time data from wireless sensors will let companies continually refine the way they work, for more efficiency and greater productivity, proponents of the technology said.

“The goal is not to schlep zeroes and ones back and forth, but to move up the value chain to optimize business processes,” said Jeff Smith, CEO of SensorLogic Inc.

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