Numerous universities, technology start-ups, venture capitalists and even large companies are experimenting with technologies that could equip networks with millions of small sensors. However, difficult technical and economic problems have yet to be solved before the big breakthrough.

The core of such systems are small sensors that monitor their environment and can transmit information wirelessly to computers. The difference to existing technologies such as thermostats is that such sensors have to form intelligent clusters in order to jointly process and transmit the collected data.

Each mini-sensor, also known as a “mote”, consists of a processor, some memory and a wireless transmitter and receiver unit. In addition, the corresponding sensor component and often a power supply are integrated in each device. Everything together has the size of a bottle cap.

Within the next few years, further miniaturization to the size of an Aspirin tablet should be possible. The sensors could then be used in water to detect pollution and in asphalt to record the volume of traffic. By using thousands of these motors around buildings, bridges, factories and fields, people can observe their environment more accurately than ever before.

“I’m sure this technology is revolutionary and will reach the point where it will have a major impact on people’s lives,” said Rob Conant, vice president of Dust Networks in Berkeley, California.

According to Harbor Research, the Internet and other networks will be connected to millions of these sensors by the end of the decade. The company is tracking the evolving market and predicts that the volume of equipment and services in this area will exceed the billion mark.

Dust Networks

Dust Networks, whose founder called the small sensors “Smart Dust”, is one of a handful of start-ups who want to turn this vision into reality. Other players are Crossbow from San Jose, Ember from Boston and Millenial Net from Cambridge.

In addition to Accenture and Intel, leading research universities such as the University of California with its Los Angeles and Berkeley sites, Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are also active in this field.

The US government is also showing interest in the technology. Both the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation as well as the Central Intelligence Agency have provided research funds.

Hindrances of sensor networks

Due to technical and economic difficulties, sensor networks have not progressed beyond the experimental stage despite enormous financial and intellectual investments in recent years. Dust, Crossbow and the other players want to conquer the three markets that promise the greatest profits: Defence, building automation and industrial plants.

Air conditioning, lighting and security systems are already equipped with sensors. According to Dust founder Rob Conant, “Motes” could make buildings even safer, more comfortable and cheaper to operate.

The field of building automation is ready for the use of the technology, as many sensors are already being used here. “Each sensor can become a wireless sensor by simply adding a corresponding transmitter and receiver unit. It’s actually just like turning a PC into a networked PC.”

Military benefits of sensor networks

In the military field, it is more important to obtain information about the battlefield, the troops and the equipment used. The technology could also help companies in capital-intensive industries such as oil and chemicals to better monitor their facilities so that any damage can be detected at an early stage.

For example, Tyco Thermal Controls, which heats pipelines, hopes that wireless sensor networks will reduce the cost of installing temperature monitoring equipment. The company hopes to replace its current, costly and maintenance-intensive wired solution with a wireless system from Ember.

The toxic environment makes wiring very expensive,” said Ken McCoy, general manager of Tyco Thermal’s electronics division. The company is in the evaluation phase and is not yet using the technology with any of its customers.

The problems with commercializing the technology have already led to the demise of a promising company with the departure of Graviton from San Diego.

Drastic funding to manufacture equipments and networks

The company had raised more than $60 million in venture capital in its five years of existence. Among the prestigious investors were Kleiner Perkins Cauflied & Byers and Royal Dutch Shell. Graviton’s remains were sold last year to Xsilogy for an unknown amount. According to Graviton founder Michael Nova, it was about one million dollars.

Nova, who left the company one and a half years before the trigger because of disputes at the management level, attributes Graviton’s failure to the wrong business model. He also pointed out that many of the companies still on the market are struggling with the same problems. Graviton wanted to do too much at once, Nova said.

Graviton wanted not only to manufacture the sensors and network equipment, but also to install and process the data. “The attempt to sell a complete solution failed,” says Nova. “This approach was simply too far ahead of its time.

Leona J. Conway