From Smart Dust to Smart Plants

University of California at Berkeley Professor Kris Pister, Ph.D., is generally credited as the inventor of “Smart Dust” technology, which has led to the commercial development of mesh-based wireless sensor networking.

As the opening-day keynote speaker at this year’s ISA Expo, Oct. 14 in Houston, Pister cited several obstacles to the success of the technology in the industrial environment—reliability concerns, need for standards, and ease-of-use and low power consumption requirements, among others—all of which he said have now been conquered.

Pister, who is chief technology officer at the company he founded in 2002, Dust Networks Inc., Hayward, Calif., sees a bright future for wireless sensor networks in industrial process monitoring and other industries. Dust Networks does not sell directly to end-users, but rather to automation original equipment manufacturers who build the technology into their products. At ISA Expo, Automation World Managing Editor Wes Iversen interviewed Pister and Dust Networks Chief Executive Officer Joy Weiss.

Automation World: Kris, why do you think you were selected as the opening day keynote speaker for this year’s ISA Expo?
Kris Pister: Everybody has known for a while that wireless will be an important and exciting part of the future. But process industry people were a little nervous about reliability, and they were concerned about standards. So the emergence of WirelessHart as a standard, as well as the demonstration at end-user companies that wireless delivers the reliability that they’re looking for, I think, has really changed the landscape. And I think that’s why ISA picked a wireless speaker for the keynote.

AW: What makes wireless sensor networks attractive for use in the process industries?
Pister: The benefits of wireless technology are so clear in industrial. It’s very common for end-users to throw out numbers like $10,000 per sensor for wired installation costs. So if you can use wireless to drop that cost, even if it were a factor of two, it would be a huge savings. But the fact is, that people are saying that it’s more like a factor of ten. So that makes it very compelling in industrial.
Joy Weiss: Another exciting thing about this industry is the transformative capability of wireless to fundamentally change the paradigm of how and when you deploy a sensor. If what you save on the wireless installation can be plowed back into deploying sensors in places where you simply could not cost-effectively deploy those sensors before, or could not pragmatically put in sensors, because putting cable and conduit to that particular location was simply not an option, and that in turn translates into productivity improvement and cost savings and reduced downtime for the plant, then that really trickles all the way back to saying, “Gosh, I think I’ll put in more sensors.”
Pister: That’s right. We’ve seen one application where a paper mill put temperature sensors on a rotating kiln, which is not something that you’re going to do with a wire. And yet that gave those guys a 5 percent increase in throughput through that kiln. And that payback came really quickly. One day after receiving the order, they had the data from that thing that they needed.

AW: What are the biggest remaining obstacles to getting this technology widely deployed in industry?
Pister: I think its only a question of adoption rate now. We would obviously like to see it happen fast. I don’t know if that will be true. But it does seem like people get it now. I don’t feel like there are any more big barriers to seeing this technology widely adopted—and really, very widely adopted.

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