In Search of Ubiquity

E-mail Wayne Manges

If you've read my articles in Sensors magazine, you are familiar with my evangelism of ubiquitous sensing. Ubiquity of wireless sensing is clearly the best way to achieve the potential envisioned by a presidential advisory committee in 1997. As part of a National Academy of Sciences study, the committee's findings advised the Department of Energy that a 10% energy savings was realizable with wireless sensing, along with a 15% reduction in emissions. Achieving energy savings of the order of 3 quadrillion BTUs per year is definitely worth pursuing.

The Best Way to Get There
The question is: What is the best way to get there? Should we look for one killer app that would save that kind of energy? Clearly not realistic. How about saving energy in a suite of industries? That could work, but we'd have to come up with a sensor that would be used in every industry in the world. A third alternative would involve adopting a model that I've been promoting, which calls for the deployment hundreds of thousands (or even millions?) of simple, low-cost sensors, where each one may save only a few BTUs. This model is being pursued in California by attacking the LED pilot lights on electronic equipment. Because those little devils are so ubiquitous, the potential savings could be significant.

What would enable wireless to get there from here? First, we'd need technologies that would fall under Moore's law and get cheaper and better every year. These are becoming available, but the packaging is still a problem. Another enabler is the availability of appropriate standards. But if the only industrial wireless standards insist on 99.99999% reliability and security against any envisioned attack, we'll be waiting quite a while for wireless sensing to embrace Moore's law.

The "Bill Gates" of Sensors
I wonder who will become the "Bill Gates" of sensors. Who will provide sensors that are so cheap and easy to use that users will reconsider what "quality" really means. I recently talked to a guy who was involved in the early days of cell phone technology. He said that his organization decided to pass because no one there could imagine that users would accept such an unreliable connection. People who think the cell phone has changed our culture underestimate its impact. The same kind of sea change of perspective awaits the coming of the ubiquitous, wireless sensing model for industry.