Intel, ADT Prep Future Sensor Networks

The ability to communicate and process data collected from motes, radio frequency identification (RFID) technology and other types of sensors would enable companies to build networks that hand-off information to different infrastructure layers as needed.

Motes, essentially small computing platforms, can self-configure themselves. They have logic to communicate with other sensors on the network and know when and how to pass data to applications. Tim Chandler, Intel's RFID and sensor networks chief architect, said the technology fits nicely into the company's "silicon building block" strategy.

Although executives have marveled at the tracking capabilities RFID brings, sensor networks will make the technology appear elementary. "If you think about just reading some tags on boxes going through the supply chain and rolling up the data into a platform, you're missing the true value," Chandler said. "Reading a box is nice. But what could I do with that information? Can I affect change, match it with other data at the edge of the network, and drive significant new business processes?"

It's not just about supply chain re-engineering or pushing up the data into the company's enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform. Rather, it's thinking about all the possible applications the information will enable as companies get more comfortable about acquiring data at the network's edge.

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RFID provides additional benefits to the tracking of incoming and outgoing inventory. Some companies have begun to take sensors into the supply chain to monitor temperature, humidity, and vibration. These networks let transportation companies make last-minute decisions. For example, sensors could help managers decide whether to throw away perishables such as milk, butter, or cheese if the refrigeration system failed on the way from the dairy to the grocery store's distribution center.

Networks built with various sensors, motes, and RFID technology would also enable a range of applications not yet developed, said Randy Dunn, director RFID at ADT Security Services Inc., a Tyco International Ltd. company. "We've suffered from this one-dimensional notion that one sensor must represent a specific activity," Dunn said. "God gave you five senses for a reason -- to process your world. The ability to take data points and tie them together to get an idea on an unfolding event is important to deliver these types of services."

ADT has deployed a "primitive" sensor technology network at The Colman Company Inc., the supplier famous for stoves and coolers. Sensors gives the supply chain platform intelligence to reroute boxes traveling down a conveyer belt when the application senses a box, but an electronic product code (EPC) tag hasn't been read.

Sensor networks will require many more data feeds and more computing power. "Look at Wal-Mart," Chandler said. "They have between 20,000 and 30,000 RFID readers on their network to handle the supply chain, but when you get into the sensor world, you could possibly multiply that by a factor of five or 10."

Intel and ADT are developing a network where sensors will sit on the edge, gather data, and conduct basic computing processes even before the filtered data travels into the ERP platform.

The sheer number of companies wanting to conduct sensor network trials has Intel's RFID division overwhelmed. People assume the technology is mature. So demand is greater then product availability.

There are products that can provide temperature sensing networks, but adding logic and compute platforms will take time. It could take between 12 and 18 months before companies begin to see new products emerge geared toward intelligent networks.