Networking & Communications

Aiming Higher Than "Can You Hear Me Now?"

January 1, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors

This Month in Wireless Sensor Networking

"Are you still a big proponent of wireless sensing?" an industry colleague asked me the other day. For a brief moment I didn't know how to answer. I felt as though I'd been asked, on a Monday morning, "Are you a big proponent of Tuesday?" Huh? When my thoughts congealed I responded: I'm neither a proponent nor a naysayer. Wireless sensor networking is inevitable. It's happening now, and it will continue to happen, eventually in a very big way.

Because they take us out of the realm of convention, wireless sensor applications are interesting; some are even awe inspiring. I like to wonder about the future they will bring into being. Thankfully, people more knowledgeable than I are also wondering. No one person has all the answers, for sure, but all together (that is, all of you—all of us) can figure out how we'll take the next step as a set of technologies, as an industry (if you can call it that), and in terms of specific applications.

This kind of progress is happening both formally and informally, and I witnessed both types last week.

SP100: Recommending Parameters for Wireless Standards
SP100 is an ISA effort whose goal is to outline the parameters that wireless sensor networking standards should address. The committee, which lists more than 100 voting and nonvoting members, may or may not end up creating a standard of it's own; standards creation was not the original intent.

The 50 or so attendees to the January SP100 meeting included representatives of vendor companies—ranging from Emerson Process Control to small radio suppliers—and end users—mainly from the big oil companies (such as Chevron and Irving) who clearly recognize the opportunities and savings that wireless sensor networking will enable. In fact, Richard Sanders of ExxonMobil is co-chair of the committee along with Wayne Manges of Oak Ridge National Labs, both of whom are also active in WINA, the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance.

The group made good progress in the meeting; the five committees, led by some of the industry's most dedicated and knowledgeable people, put forth well-considered proposals, invited input and commentary, and set specific dates for next steps.

To stay on top of SP100 happenings, sign on as an information-only member by sending e-mail to Lois Ferson; this way you can access details on the site. The next meeting (April 11-13 at ISA headquarters in Research Triangle Park, NC) will be preceded by several intermediary steps and conference calls. You can catch subsequent meetings at Sensors Expo in Chicago (June 5-7) and at ISA Expo in Houston TX (October 17-19).

By the way, Manges has done an excellent job in leading this effort, as he did in helping to form WINA. Perhaps nobody else has better ear-to-the-ground knowledge for the current state of wireless sensor networking applications than this well-known and well-respected figure. That's why we've invited him to host this newsletter beginning next month.

A Wireless Sensor Community: The Silicon Valley SIG
The wireless sensor networking (WSN) special interest group (SIG) of Silicon Valley, which meets at Cadence headquarters, featured a presentation by Crossbow Technologies for its January gathering. Fifty-two people attended, and the meeting allowed for a lively exchange of questions and ideas.

Crossbow showcased a number of inspiring applications, including one featured on the cover of our upcoming issue of Wireless Sensors.

The WSN SIG of Silicon Valley is well positioned geographically, with so many WSN vendors nearby to provide the meetings' presentation framework. That makes the meeting format easy, but what I like most is the idea of engineers coming together to help each other think about application issues. Each situation has its own set of requirements that depends on many variables, and because the technologies are new and rapidly evolving, the idea-exchange format seems extraordinarily helpful.

If you don't live nearby, you might consider forming a similar group. If you do, let me know.

ZigBee's Big Steps
Perhaps the biggest news in wireless sensor networking this past month was the progress of the ZigBee standard for low-power, low data rate wireless communications. Despite speculation among some that ZigBee will eventually be rendered irrelevant by the adaptation of other standards (WiFi, for instance) to effectively handle sensor data, that possibility seems distant in light of new developments.

The ZigBee Alliance says that stringent certification requirements will enable further applications development, and I agree. Its new process to evaluate and classify products as ZigBee Certified, in order to ensure that products are fully interoperable "right-out-of-the-box," should go a long way toward making the standard "adoptable" by OEMs.

So should the deal that Ember struck with STMicroelectronics (ST), one of the world's largest semiconductor companies. For Ember, this is the deepest relationship yet in its strategy to partner with leading microcontroller manufacturers to offer a diverse choice of interoperable ZigBee platforms from which device manufacturers can build new products. Ember and ST will develop ZigBee-based hardware, software, and tools in a nonexclusive partnership Their first product is planned for early 2006.

Another adoption driver is Texas Instruments' completed acquisition of Chipcon, a move TI hopes will spawn "innovative low-power applications." This powerful pairing, says Stuart Carlaw of ABI Research, demonstrates that "momentum is building behind the ZigBee standard, with TI joining the ranks of Freescale, Motorola, Samsung and Mitsubishi," and indicates that "this technology will happen in a big way." He hopes the move will also help to drive down costs and "open doors to more price-sensitive applications."

Expert Observation
Next month, Wayne Manges will bring you his powerful insights on the most important developments in wireless and M2M technologies, applications, standards and more. Keep reading, because over the course of time he'll help you to understand the opportunities and avoid the hazards on the road to wireless sensor networking success.

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