Accessible, affordable and powerful – across every industry, wireless sensor technology has become the default for best-in-class companies to monitor a myriad of interacting factors.
These small, self-powered sensors have an incredibly diverse range of deployment applications on every scale, from tracking a single freezer in a laboratory to monitoring entire wooded areas for forest fires. This once-experimental foray into the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) is now the new normal.
In order to predict where wireless networks are headed, however, it’s important to get a grasp of the basics and a strong understanding of the role of wireless sensor technology in the market today.
Wireless Sensor Networks: A Primer
Wireless sensors utilize nodes to detect changes in temperature, chemical composition, pressure or voltage in the environments around them. The information is captured and transmitted to a centralized data repository for analysis. These sensors are capable of collaborating with one another but operate autonomously, the basis for a truly scalable system that can be made up of just one, hundreds, thousands, or tens or thousands of individual sensors. A group of deployed sensors is commonly referred to as a wireless sensor network.
Applied sensor technology relies on both hardware and software components. The sensors themselves rely on nodes – containing microcontrollers and transceivers – clipped on or otherwise connected to the item or area to be monitored. This hardware connects back to a gateway, which sends the collected data to a repository for processing. It’s the processing software that makes the sensor-derived record of zeros and ones meaningful. From a centralized data portal, the raw data can be rapidly contextualized and parsed to provide actionable insight.
Data can be sorted on the device level or aggregated into larger operational levels, according to the available parameters; by device type, zone, floor, building, or operational conditions, to name some examples.
While the hardware underlying this feat of engineering used to require direct connection to a power source, recent developments in wireless, and remote energy harvesting technology have quite literally untethered sensor potential. Today, sensors can be miniaturized and introduced to almost any environment or process.
This powerful technology wasn’t always this sophisticated, or even this practical. Wireless sensor technology can trace its humble beginnings to the U.S. military. developed in the 1950s as a tool to monitor Soviet submarines. Even then though, researchers saw its larger potential: military agencies continued their work on wireless sensor technology, collaborating with research labs and universities to launch the Distributed Sensor Network (DSN) program in 1980 to identify opportunities and challenges in their widespread adoption.
The rest, as they say, is history.
How Is Wireless Sensor Technology Used?
The sensors we know today are a far cry from the clunky shoebox-sized sensors of the DSN days. Self-powered and about the size of a 9-volt battery, today advanced wireless sensor technology can be applied practically anywhere. Consider the novel applications described below:
Using sensors to predict natural disasters
Outside of the military, wireless sensor technology was first put to work in early warning systems for natural disasters such as flooding, tsunamis or landslides; they’ve also been used to monitor dormant and active volcanoes and to detect forest fires. Self-powered, wireless sensors are particularly well-suited for such purposes as wired sensors can disrupt the natural environment and power sources are difficult to maintain in the wild.
Evolving from such deployments, wireless sensor technology has even been adapted to monitor pollution. These networks are often deployed as a cost-effective, smaller, less labor-intensive and less disruptive alternative to the large processing centers needed to track air and water quality. The sensors pick up chemicals and pollutants above a certain acceptable level and record that information for researchers, scientists and public officials to analyze.
Energy monitoring for improved industrial applications
Wireless sensor technology is used in a number of industries to monitor current flow, which sheds light on an organization’s operational efficiency and performance.
At its most basic level, device-level energy monitoring tracks how much electricity a piece of equipment or system is using. Curtailing energy spend, improving operational resilience and informing smarter energy purchasing decisions are just a few of the ways in which users tap into their energy’s potential.
The data uncovered while monitoring energy consumption provides priceless operational insight. Such an automated feedback loop from the factory floor to the command and control room represents a veritable boon for asset performance management and operational efficiency efforts.
For example, power surges and dips can be indicative of a failing machine, while lags can uncover a negative impact one piece of equipment has on an assembly line. By correcting those issues, organizations can achieve peak operational efficiency, scheduling preventive maintenance, recalibrating equipment and much, much more.
These imaginative possibilities are simultaneously growing in scope and becoming more refined. Advanced wireless sensor technology makes it possible to view granular details while managing a process that impacts millions of people, all from the same wireless sensor network and the same data.
As some of these implementations move from “ahead of the curve” to a “much-needed standard,” where will this industry disruptor go next?
What the Future Holds for Advanced Wireless Sensor Technology
“The future” of advanced wireless sensor technology is here, now. So what does it look like?
To understand the future of wireless sensor technology, it’s important to understand its catalyst. One of the biggest factors driving its increased adoption is increased confidence in the technology itself. More and more industries are trusting passive monitoring to collect information at least as reliably as a human, without any of the human headaches.
Wireless sensor technology’s easy implementation is also driving its growth. Simple snap-on designs make it easy to deploy a wireless sensor network in a matter of hours instead of weeks.
With its near-infinite scalability and the strengthening trust in the technology, wireless sensors can tackle large-scale issues that those early inventors could never have dreamed actionable.
Imagine if wireless sensors could manage traffic in a congested city. Instead of preprogrammed stoplights, which aren’t always ideally suited for dynamic road conditions, advanced wireless sensor technology can be used to adjust the frequency of stops and yields based on traffic flow and conditions. Lighter traffic times would have less red lights, improving traffic flow without impeding citizens’ ability to cross the street or causing a backup in the opposite direction.
If you’ve heard of the Internet of Things, you’ve heard of wireless sensor technology. While it’s not as sexy, the fact is that everything that the Internet of Things does and can do is thanks to the wireless sensors that enable it. All the excitement afforded to the Internet of Things and its practically limitless applications hinge on the tiny microcontrollers and transceivers within our devices, and the memory, power and processing systems that they interact with.
While we may not be using clunky machines to monitor the Soviets anymore, every industry now benefits from the technology unleashed by the Cold War more than 50 years ago. Where will wireless sensor technology take us next? The answer: Everywhere.