Advances in information technology have some companies dreaming of a world abuzz with sensors, some of which could reduce carbon emissions.
Companies such as IBM, Intel and Hewlett-Packard describe a future world "smarter" than today's, where cars don't crash, planes run on time and cell phones can "smell" bacteria in food. The companies see this "smart" movement also showing up in the power industry, factories and public infrastructure.
They call it "sensor networking," and it's being driven by leaps in the sensor field. Moore's Law -- the principle that microchips double their performance, and get cheaper, every two years -- has made mass dispersal of sensors possible.
"All of a sudden, it's all coming together, as a nice point in time when we can actually start saying, we can start wiring our world -- or unwiring our world, I should say," said Jeff Wacker, Hewlett-Packard's leader of services innovation. "We can start putting out all these points of contact."
Wacker's job is not an easy one. He has to dream up something these sensors can do for a company, then convince it to want that service.
He said one obvious market is electric utilities, which expect to use more renewable energy in the coming decades and have to be ready for sudden dips in generation.
Currently, Wacker said, utilities can only shut off a home's circuit or a plug. This comes with a danger: "What's plugged into that? Is it your oxygen generator for Grandma who's going to die if I do that, or is it your refrigerator?"
Mobilizing little energy misers
Wacker said HP has sensors that can shut off a fridge's compressor for a few minutes to help the utility balance electricity demand with the renewable-power dropoff. When the compressor comes back on, the food will be practically the same temperature, and the homeowner probably won't even have noticed.
Such sensors will also play a role for IBM, which has more than a dozen smart-grid projects around the world. The devices form the backbone of the "smart meters" that give consumers and utilities a tuning knob for power use.
IBM will also target factories that want to fine-tune their round-the-clock manufacturing churn.
To demonstrate, the company outfitted its Burlington, Vt., semiconductor plant with 60,000 sensors. These synchronized its water, power, heating and lighting use.
Since the plant runs every minute of the year, the gains were substantial. Power and fuel use each dropped by a fifth.
Sensor networks could also benefit cities that want to stay wary in a changing climate. Carlos Guestrin, an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, said most localities don't give much thought to water quality, for example. "The only real thing we can do right now is put some chlorine in the water and hope for the best," he said.
Today, it's becoming possible to stick sensors throughout the chain: at the water-treatment plant, in the distribution pipes, even at the kitchen faucet. That means contaminants can be spotted instantly.
Preparing for an 'Internet of Things'
Intel is taking another strategy: minimizing the power demands of the sensors themselves. "That's been a real problem for sensor units: People can build these sensor networks that send data wirelessly, but their battery only lasts a couple minutes," said Josh Smith, a principal engineer.
To target that problem, Smith and others have been developing two technologies called WARP and WISP. These aren't ready for commercial use yet, but when they are, they can power a sensor just by receiving a radio or television wave.
The lack of a battery means these sensors can be buried more deeply, and in harder-to-reach spaces, than ever before.
Of course, sensors don't do the whole job themselves. As Wacker puts it, "Data without interpretation is just bits and bytes." IT companies want to sell a comprehensive business: the sensors as well as the computers and software that make sense of the data.
Some believe that enough of this networking could birth an "Internet of Things," forging a whole new economic sector much as the Internet gave rise to Amazon, Facebook and Google -- as well as all the secondary jobs in their supply chains.
'Much more can be done'
"As these technologies mature, the range of corporate deployments will increase," McKinsey and Co. said in a March report. "Now is the time for executives across all industries to structure their thoughts about the potential impact and opportunities likely to emerge from the Internet of Things."
Wacker, of HP, is not so sure. He said the Internet of Things will run on nanotechnology, robots, biotechnology and the like. These don't lend themselves to mass employment; it's hard to imagine truckers hauling sensors the size of an atom and running on a minuscule nuclear plant.
"We are eliminating, or at the very least, changing the nature of the jobs that are there," he told a Washington audience last week.
Others believe this industry can have the same economic muscle, and reach, as the Internet did 20 years ago.
"I think it has very similar potential," said Harry Kolar, a distinguished engineer at IBM who focuses on sensor markets. He said that in just the past 10 years, prices have dropped and companies have become more open about sharing their knowledge on sensors.
The "open source" trend is leading to more innovation and hurtling Moore's Law ahead. There's no telling if the industry will reach the exact scope of the Internet business, he said, but "the technologies have really advanced to the point now where much more can be done."
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