Author: Yogi Schulz

Earlier this year Wal-Mart and Benetton announced that they would adopt a new generation of electronic sensors called Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID). These announcements brought a technology that has been maturing for many years squarely into the public eye. Some quick research showed that RFID is just the beginning of a coming revolution in miniature, low-cost sensors that will have a significant impact on monitoring the environment and on controlling enterprise processes.

As the price/performance of computers dramatically improved over the years, a similar but less visible trend has played out in the world of electronic sensors. Sensors are widely used in manufacturing, utilities and buildings where they constantly measure temperature and pressure.

What sensor technologies, that will find application in the enterprise, are just over the horizon?

New Sensors

The emerging generation of electronic sensors is often called “Smart Dust” to recognize their small size and the absence of wires for communication. While “Smart Dust” exaggerates what is possible today, it is the design goal for ubiquitous, low-cost sensing. The devices are tiny wireless micro-electromechanical sensors (MEMS), currently measuring less than 5 millimeters on a side. They can detect light, temperature, pressure or vibration.

Thanks to recent breakthroughs in silicon materials and fabrication techniques, these devices contain a sensor, computing circuits, bi-directional wireless communications and a power supply in one tiny package. These electronic sensors gather scads of data, run computations and communicate the results using two-way radio links between devices at distances approaching 1,000 feet.

Potential enterprise applications range from catching difficult-to-see manufacturing defects, identifying looming operational problems by sensing out-of-range vibrations to tracking patient movements within a hospital complex.

New Networks

For the electronic sensors to be useful, they must be able to transmit their readings to each other or to a collection point. To support communication, a new generation of network technology is emerging. This emerging network technology is self-organizing, self-healing and wireless. The technology aspires to be robust, easy to use, and flexible.

In the enterprise, this new generation of network technology will reduce installation and operating costs when compared to the current generation of wired networks. The early applications will include monitoring in continuous process manufacturers such as oil refineries and meter reading for utilities.

New Operating Systems

The expectations for incredibly small, long-lasting electronic sensors place severe limitations on the operating system that run the sensor. To meet these challenges, TinyOS is being developed. TinyOS is an efficient embedded software platform that requires very little memory. The University of California at Berkeley is using an open source software model to develop TinyOS. A large community of end-users is actively contributing to the project.

For the enterprise, TinyOS is becoming a low-cost solution that can be easily implemented.

Impediments to Adoption

As is frequently the case, some impediments need to be resolved before this technology can be easily and widely adopted. First, some of this technology is still in development. Early adopters can expect to encounter some setbacks, as component robustness is inadequate. Second, standards that ensure communication interoperability between sensors produced by various manufacturers are lacking. Expect that the marketplace and technology developments will cause a standard to emerge. Third, the integration of data that originates from the new generation of sensors into the existing monitoring fabric, which enterprises considering this technology will have in use, requires more attention.


The emerging generation of “Smart Dust” sensing devices is accelerating the trend toward lower-cost, higher-capability monitoring of manufacturing processes and environmental conditions. If you’d like to receive a copy of the URLs that lead to the detail that supports this article, please send me an e-mail.