Intelligent Sensor Networks

Wireless sensor networks will soon become as important as the Internet. Just as the Internet allows access to digital information anywhere, sensor networks will provide vast arrays of real-time, remote interaction with the physical world.

The industrial automation business will be generating significant growth in this new arena.

The trend will impact many aspects of life. Smart, wireless networked sensors will soon be everywhere around us, collecting and processing huge amounts data—from air quality and traffic conditions, to weather conditions and tidal flows. And this means not just monitoring a few isolated sensors, but literally tens of thousands of intelligent sensor nodes, which will provide not merely local measurements, but overall patterns of change.

Within the next few years, this significant new technology will help run factories, optimize widely spread processes, monitor the weather, detect the spread of toxic gases in chemical spills, and even provide precious extra time in advance of tornados and earthquakes.

Sensors are already everywhere. But most sensors used today are large, expensive and dumb—they lack the intelligence to analyze or act on their measurements, simply providing isolated measurements for remote processing.

Soon, micro-electrical-mechanical systems (MEMS) and nanotechnology will yield tiny, low-cost, low-power sensors. Tiny is important because they can be scattered around unobtrusively to measure just about everything that you can imagine. Low power means they won’t need to carry a large battery and may even be solar-powered. Low cost is also key because the numbers required will be enormous.

Several new companies are already producing ultra low-power, postage stamp-sized smart sensors yielding good results in a variety of applications. But the thumbnail size is still only an interim stage. Soon, integrated sensors and silicon will yield microscopic components that can be scattered around like “smart dust.”

There are three basic technologies involved in smart sensor networks:

• Micro miniature, ultra-low-power sensors. Today these are usually MEMS structures that are fabricated like silicon integrated circuits. With the advances of nanotechnology, atomic-scale sensors will come on the scene.

• Embedded silicon, wireless transceivers, firmware for peer-to-peer communications and self-organizing systems. While the individual nodes are relatively fragile and communicate over only small distances, the complete networks are robust, with communication through multiple redundant paths.

• Software for communications, control and optimization for thousands of nodes.

Instant hot spots

Together, these new developments are bringing to life intelligent wireless sensor networks that can be spread over wide areas. These vast intelligent arrays can yield individual hot-spots instantly for real-time analysis. In addition, the technology provides information to facilitate overall pattern recognition analysis in ways that were previously unimaginable.

Smart wireless sensor networks are one of the first real-world examples of “pervasive” computing—small, smart, cheap sensing and computing devices that will permeate the environment.

Once tiny, low power sensors are available and the measurements are communicated and coordinated through peer-to-peer wireless links, the technology moves to whole new software arenas: pattern-recognition, heuristic analysis, self-organizing systems and complexity science.

Immediate markets include industrial automation and process control, unattended sensors and real-time monitoring over wide areas, and utilities (automated meter reading and building automation that relies on heating and cooling patterns).

They’re everywhere

Within the next few years, distributed sensing and computing will be everywhere—homes, offices, factories, automobiles, shopping centers, supermarkets, farms, forests, rivers and lakes. The fields of weather prediction, including accurate storm and tornado warning, as well as earthquake prediction, will be revolutionized through widespread wireless sensors.

In a flat industrial automation marketplace, expect growth from this arena. Get your company involved. Find ways to utilize intelligent sensor networks with your products or applications.

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