Wireless sensors enter the IP and Web services arena

* IETF, vendors bring IP standards to wireless PANs

One day, sensors will probably be embedded in just about everything (and, quite possibly, everyone) for any number of tracking, monitoring, and security purposes.

Low-power wireless technology makes it possible to put sensors in places that are impossible, impractical or expensive to wire, allowing sensing applications to become pervasive. Wireless sensors called motes can communicate wirelessly with one another in a mesh fashion to form their own backhaul and thus communicate over distances. These sensors are relatively inexpensive and can run for potentially many years on batteries.

Progress is being made to bring such low-power, short-range, low-bit-rate wireless sensors into the world of IP and Web services. First, there is an IETF Internet-Draft (it’s not quite an RFC, or official standard, yet) to put IPv6 directly into wireless sensors. Use of IPv6 is key, of course, because its 128-bit address space allows for a number of unique IP addresses so large that each person on earth could have octillion times the number of IPv4 addresses currently available in the whole world. And you'll need lots and lots of addresses when sensors will be everywhere.

This IETF standard-in-progress is called 6LoWPAN. It’s hard not to think of a yummy Asian dish when you hear this name, but the key concepts help you remember it: IPv6, low-power, and wireless personal-area networks, or WPANs.

Once wireless sensors speak IP, they can suddenly be tapped by anyone with proper AAA credentials from anywhere on the corporate network. Arch Rock, a start-up vendor that says it will ship 6LoWPAN draft-compliant sensors and gateways next month, offers up the example of a supermarket that recently had a refrigeration snafu and, as a result, lost gallons upon gallons of ice cream. Had a threshold been set, sensed, and the supermarket manager alerted, that loss could have been avoided.

Meanwhile, last month, Sensicast Systems announced a set of Web-based sensor services that allow manufacturing companies with wireless sensors to use the company’s temperature, energy and moisture-monitoring applications over the Internet without having to host them on their own network infrastructures. Operations personnel can get real-time information from their own plants, customers and supply-chain partners without having to add the server infrastructure themselves.

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