• The Next Big Thing? Networked Sensor Technology
  • October 16, 2003
  • Law Firm: Rutan & Tucker, LLP - Costa Mesa Office
  • With the "tech wreck" of dot-com, telecom and other technology companies well into its third year, you have probably asked yourself at least once: What brave new technology will appear to catapult the industry out of its doldrums? The answer could very well be a technology that is actually not so new: Networked Sensor Technology.

    Sensors have been around for decades in automobiles, on assembly lines and in other technical equipment. But the technology to connect those sensors wirelessly to a computer network that can then direct other technology within the network to respond to their information has only emerged within the past several years. It's the technology that could allow us to sit back in our recliners as sensors in our lawn automatically send wireless signals to the sprinkler system box in our garage when our prized emerald turf has become too dry, which then signals the sprinklers to water the portion of the lawn that requires attention. Digital Sun, Inc. of San Jose, California is an early entrant into this market space and has garnered a great deal of media attention with such networked sprinkler and irrigation products.

    Other applications of this technology include air conditioning and heating systems that can be programmed to keep particular areas of a home, vehicle or appliance at desired temperatures, tiny sensors inside the body that can signal a medical device to administer or adjust medication when changes in physiological or biochemical levels occur, and even "clouds" of miniscule sensors, referred to as "smart dust," that can be spread over a battlefield and report troop and military asset locations and movements. Many other applications are possible, all with the same general goal: to convert processes which now require some manual action or intervention to their ultimate state of computerized efficiency.

    The form of networked sensor technology that is getting the most attention from the business world is the rapidly burgeoning area of Radio Frequency Identification, or RFID. RFID utilizes small sensors in product packaging to track each product (or carton of products) from the point of manufacture to the retail point of sale. The RFID sensors automatically notify the inventory tracking system at the manufacturer, wholesaler and/or retailer as to the location (and eventual disposition) of each unit. RFID permits sellers (particularly retailers) to implement "just in time" inventory procurement and delivery systems, monitor and update product sales data and anticipate sales trends much more quickly than previously possible -- minimizing lead times, inventory costs and customer frustration. RFID sensors can also be embedded in other objects, to track them for other purposes. RFID sensors could be attached to livestock or even -- shades of Big Brother -- human beings (your teenage kids, for example), although they would need to remain relatively close to a radio frequency network relay device.

    Not surprisingly, California is home to many of the players in the RFID technology movement, most notably those involved in software development. Intel Corp. is leading the intellectual charge in developing operating systems and data bases for networked sensor technologies by sponsoring the TinyOS and TinyDB developer groups hosted by the University of California, Berkeley (whose website can be found at http://webs.cs.berkeley.edu/tos). Since the actual sensors are so small, correspondingly small operating systems and databases must be developed to allow the sensors to operate and communicate with the central computer.

    While blazing new territory in miniaturization, RFID development efforts are not generally considered to fall within the category of nanotechnology. Research and development of nanotechnology is still in its infancy and mass commercialization of any useful products based on nanotechnology principles is still believed to be decades away.

    At some point, however, the line between miniaturized networked sensor technology and nanotechnology becomes blurred. For example, radiologists are already testing "smart dust" technology for use as an injectable, controllable "flock" of diagnostic sensors that can surround or infiltrate structures within the body and provide pictures and data impossible to achieve using existing imaging tools. The University of California, Irvine, has received a grant from the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, to research high-frequency wireless communication devices based on nanotubes for military applications. Such technology could, for example, permit "real time" communication by infiltrators at terrorist cell meetings without detection. This technology would eventually reach us civilian consumers. A decade from now we may be able to hold instant teleconferences with co-workers no matter where we might be, wearing only a device the size of a quarter in our ear or incorporated into a lapel pin or employee ID clipped to our clothing.

    The variety of applications for networked sensor technology is limited only by the imagination of our technologists, and there is no place more replete with entrepreneurial "techies" and investors waiting to fund them than right here in California.