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Have wireless sensor networks become irrelevant in the IoT?

Posted: 06 May 2014  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IoT  Dust Networks  wireless sensor network 

A one-size-fits-all solution is a concept that does not apply in the Internet-of-Things. Use-case scenarios and requirements dictate the deployment of a range of radios and network topologies. The pervasive wireless sensor networks and Internet Protocols have both induced the IoT's establishment, but looking at connectivity, reliability and low power prevail.

Lately, a number of so-called "connected consumer products"—such as Google's Nest thermostats, wearable devices, talking refrigerators and smart homes—have sucked all the oxygen from today's IoT debate. But, before that, there was Dust Networks. More accurately, a concept called SmartDust arrayed numerous tiny sensors to detect, trace and report back the state—light, temperature, vibration, chemicals and other features—of the physical world.

Indeed, way before the phrase "IoT" was coined, Kris Pister, a professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of Calif., Berkeley, started in late 1990s the SmartDust project with DARPA funding. He co-founded Dust Networks in 2004. Dust Networks, then, conceived a clear vision for a wireless sensor network, and outlined how it should behave.

Over the last decade, Dust Networks has been busy adapting its wireless mesh network technologies to the industrial market—typically by replacing wired networks already deeply embedded in factory floors and industrial process facilities.

Conspicuously absent?

Since late 2011 when Linear Technology acquired Dust Networks, Dust hasn't changed its industrial market focus.

Dust's sensor networks are installed in Chevron's oil refinery in Calif. The GlaxoSmithKline plant in Cork, Ireland also uses wireless mesh networks to monitor the pharmaceutical company's new water storage tanks. Dust's robust wireless networks play a critical role predicting precious water supplies, gathering real-time water content data from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of eastern California.

More than 30,000 networks—designed by Dust and sold by its customers—are installed in 120 countries, according to Linear.

Today, Linear has two product lines: SmartMesh WirelessHart and SmartMesh IP. The former complies with the WirelessHART (IEC 62591) standard designed for industrial applications. The latter complies with the 6LoWPAN standard, providing native IPv6 addressability to every node.

Dust Networks CEO Joy Weiss

Weiss: Ten years ago, the wireless sensor network was my soapbox. That was the thing all my buddies and I thought the world needed. The wireless sensor network has then become a subset of today's bigger IoT world, where a cast of characters...are trying to sort out a range of issues including the network's efficiencies, operating cost, and big data.

While Dust Networks plays in two worlds—non-IP and IP markets, the work Dust has done thus far seems conspicuously absent from today's overhyped IoT headlines. Was Dust's vision (and technology) simply ahead of its time? More to the point, how relevant is Dust in today's IoT world?

We recently caught up with Joy Weiss, president and CEO of Dust Networks at Linear. In a wide-ranging interview, Weiss, who is celebrating her 10th anniversary at Dust this year, laid out what Dust was originally set up to do and what it has accomplished: creating a genuinely reliable, low-power wireless sensor network in the harshest conditions.

Time Slotted Channel Hopping

Most significantly, Weiss discussed how some basic Dust technologies developed for its Time Synchronised Mesh Protocol—described by the company as the underpinning of the WirelessHART standard for industrial applications—are about to penetrate IP-based personal area networks.

This work is currently taking place at the IETF 6TSCH (pronounced "sixtus") working group, said Weiss.

TSCH stands for Time Slotted Channel Hopping. Designed to work by dividing time into "slots," it provides a mechanism to map timeslots to channels with a pre-assigned hopping sequence. The Time Synchronised Mesh Protocol developed by Dust includes TSCH media access layer.

Founded in 2013, the IETF 6TSCH working group is co-chaired by representatives from Cisco and Dust Networks. The group hopes to define an open standard for building and maintaining a TSCH schedule in a 6LoWPAN network. While it's likely to be 12 to 18 months before the work is complete, Weiss said, "Our approach is to get some of our technologies incorporated into the standard." Noting that a lot of companies are contributing to the work, she stated, "Once the standard is complete, we believe we can implement it and execute on it better than our competitors." Showing a flash of competitiveness, she added, "We still have a few more tricks up our sleeves."

Following is an excerpt of EE Times' interview with Weiss.


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