Smart dust? Well, almost

Miniscule devices bring sci-fi dream closer to reality

By Dean Takahashi

Knight Ridder Newspapers

The Loch Rannoch oil tanker isn't exactly the place you'd expect to find cutting-edge computer technology. But the 850,000-ton ship owned by British Petroleum is home to an experiment in preventing critical breakdowns before they happen.

A swarm of little sensors known as "motes" have been deployed near heavy-duty machinery on the ship. If a motor starts vibrating out of control, the sensor captures the unusual motion, and the data is passed along wirelessly from sensor to sensor until it reaches a computer link. The computer sounds an alarm, and maintenance workers can respond to fix the motor before it breaks.


"We have some very expensive equipment on those ships, and now we can monitor the status of that equipment 24 hours a day," said Harry Cassar, British Petroleum's technology director.

This is the real-life embodiment of "smart dust," an idea that was the stuff of science fiction just a decade ago. For now, the devices are more the size and shape of tape measures than dust particles. But they're small and cheap enough at $25 to $125 each to look like a bargain when it comes to protecting multimillion-dollar machines.

British Petroleum's experience shows how computing can become a pervasive part of the landscape, with tiny wireless sensor networks monitoring everything from redwood forests to the habits of Alzheimer's patients.

Motes, for instance, already collect data from the nests of the storm petrel, an elusive seabird that lives on Great Duck Island off the coast of Maine. Wireless sensors keep tabs on pumps in Intel's chip factories and report on soil conditions in wine vineyards. They also check the integrity of oil pipelines and track air temperatures in corporate data centers. In Australia, ranchers are putting motes inside cattle to monitor their body temperature so they know when they are becoming sick.

British Petroleum deployed the sensor networks a month ago and will conduct experiments throughout its fleet of tankers, oil drilling platforms and tanker trucks. Within a couple of years, the company expects to deploy motes en masse, Cassar says.

Exploding market

Such uses are generating millions of dollars in revenue now, says Joyce Putscher, an analyst at In-stat, a market researcher in Scottsdale, Ariz. She estimates that 150 million sensor chips a year will be shipping by 2008.

"Next year a lot of trials will be under way, and in 2006, it should take off," Putsche said.


Those sensors will produce terabytes of data, feeding the demand for computers for years to come. That has Hewlett-Packard, IBM and other tech giants eagerly awaiting the opportunity that wireless sensor networks represent.

"We believe the networks and everything that goes into them will generate revenue of $8 billion to $10 billion in 2008," said Glenn Allmendinger, president of market researcher Harbor Research in San Francisco. "It's going to drive the consumption of data."

Computer scientist Kris Pister coined the phrase "smart dust" in 1997 while at the University of California-Berkeley. He was researching the idea of putting a computer in a space the size of a grain of sand.

Intel opened its own lab at Berkeley and helped fund the research. The chip giant is involved in a half-dozen different experiments and has invested in San Jose, Calif.'s Crossbow Technology, which supplied the wireless sensors to British Petroleum.

No longer a joke

Pister's research, including the creation of a TinyOS operating system for the motes, was completed in 2002. It spawned numerous start-ups, including Pister's own company, Dust Networks. Most of the sensor start-ups are focusing on monitoring security, environmental conditions and industrial machinery.

"At the time I thought of smart dust, it was a joke," said Pister, Dust Networks' chief technology officer. "Now it's moving on from demonstrations to real products, and that is what got me out of the university."

Pister's project has turned into an entire industry. More than 90 companies have joined the Zigbee consortium, which is devising standards for low-power wireless sensor networks. Named after the zig-zag way that bees communicate information to the rest of the hive, the Zigbee group foresees hundreds of millions of sensors built into the fabric of everyday things.


Sensor makers such as Motorola's spun-off chip unit, Freescale, and Rockwell are involved. So are chip companies such as Intel, Texas Instruments, Norway's Chipcon, Atmel, Analog Devices, Samsung and others.

Systems companies such as Invensys, Honeywell and Siemens are helping to implement the technology. Start-ups include Dust, Crossbow, Millennial Net, Ember, Helicomm and Figure8 Wireless.

"We're on our third-generation mote, and we've got 750 potential customers evaluating the products," said Mike Horton, chief executive officer of Crossbow, which has been profitable for two years as a sensor maker. "We think on air conditioning costs, motes could save 20 percent on electricity bills, and they're 50 percent to 80 percent cheaper to install than wired sensors."

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