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Dust makes mesh of wireless sensors

Start-up Dust Networks takes the covers off a low-power wireless system for linking sensors in walls, remote cameras and other places.

Technology that can let walls, remote cameras or electricity meters relay information wirelessly to computers took a step forward with the first product release from Dust Networks.

The Berkeley, Calif.-based start-up started on Monday to sell SmartMesh, a low-power wireless networking system for linking sensors inside a building or a factory to a central computer system.

Advocates say these networks will expand how computers get used because they will let people get access to data that is hard or expensive to obtain right now. Early experiments with wireless sensors, for instance, have permitted scientists to study animals in their natural habitat and monitor the movement of tectonic plates under the ocean.

Defense agencies are looking at using wireless sensors to monitor troop movements, while oil companies believe the technology could replace the expensive wired sensor systems currently in place.

Still, the wireless sensor market has not lived up to some of its early promise, hindered by problems with battery power and other technical difficulties.

Dust Networks does not develop the sensors. Instead, it makes the networking equipment that connects cameras, chemical sensors and other data-harvesting devices to a larger computer network. The SmartMesh system enables these devices to relay data directly to a computer or to each other, the company said.

SmartMesh's selling point is that its technology consumes very little power, said Chief Technology Officer Kris Pister, who has taken leave from the University of California at Berkeley to get the company going.

One of SmartMesh's remote-networking nodes will "run multiple years or a lifetime on a pair of AA batteries," he said. "That only took a decade of my life," he added, laughing.

Power consumption is reduced because the node is turned off when it's not sending out data. While many others have figured out how to turn a node off when transmission is complete, Dust has figured out an effective way to turn it on when transmission is required, Pister said.

The SmartMesh system largely consists of three elements: wireless motes, tiny devices that attach to a sensor and send collected data to a centralized computer system; software that executes routing, timing and management functions on the mote; and SmartMesh manager, which coordinates the sensor network with an existing computing system. Pricing was not released.

Dust is currently running trials with SAIC and Honeywell, Pister said. Honeywell grafted a SmartMesh network into the electrical system in a grocery store in Minneapolis to curb power consumption. The network, Pister said, only took a few hours to install; a similar wired network would typically take about three days to put in.

Pister added that Dust has not shared in the barrage of complaints about invasion of privacy that have been leveled at backers of RFID radio-tracking technology. That's because SmartMesh will mostly be used to replace wired systems typically used to monitor heat and air conditioning in factories and buildings, he said.

UC Berkeley has emerged as one of the centers for sensor research. Intel has opened a "lablet" in conjunction with the university that is delving into sensor networking and operating systems, among other topics.