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Wireless Sensors Monitor Mobile Machines

Wireless sensors can help companies monitor mobile equipment and environments too large to be outfitted with wired sensors.
By Mark Roberti
Jun 08, 2009The other day, I was sitting across from two building maintenance executives on my train ride into Manhattan. One gentleman was explaining that his company had installed new boilers in all its residential buildings. The boilers are equipped with sophisticated sensors and connected to the Internet, so he can log on to a Web site and view the performance of each one. He can see the average efficiency across all of the units, and identify which ones are underperforming so they can be optimized. "Whenever one goes off line or exceeds certain thresholds," he said, "I get an alert on my Blackberry."

This kind of remote monitoring is still in its infancy, but will continue to grow as companies replace older equipment with new, more efficient equipment that can be monitored remotely. It's part of what IBM has called "building a smarter planet." But what if your equipment is not in a fixed location? Or what if you want to measure the condition of a remote environment? You can't simply plug in Ethernet cable. That's where wireless sensors come in.

Wireless sensors allow companies to deploy data-capture devices in remote areas, or on mobile assets or machines, to capture information cost-effectively and use it to improve efficiencies and save money. Take the Merion Golf Club, located in Ardmore, Penn. A New York Times article about the club (see On Golf Courses, Sensors Help Save Water said that Matt Shaffer, Merion's director of golf operations, was already known for conserving water, but wound up using far less after deploying subterranean wireless sensors that constantly monitor moisture, temperature and salinity in the soil, then transmit the data to a software network that can be accessed from a laptop, handheld device or desktop computer.

"Well, what I thought was dry isn't even my baseline," the Times quoted Shaffer as saying. "These sensors are just so much more sensitive, so much better, so much more complete. I am now hooked. I'm a sensor addict."

The golf courses using these systems are saving 18 to 20 million gallons of water per year (an annual savings of approximately $130,000) because better data enables them to water only when moisture drops to a certain level.

Passive radio frequency identification tags are the simplest form of wireless sensors. They provide information regarding the location of a specific object. Active tags can be combined with accelerometers, as well as temperature, radiation and other types of sensors. The most sophisticated RFID sensors are like microcomputers—they have operating systems and the ability to communicate with one another, so they can form ad hoc or mesh networks.

Some might argue that these more sophisticated wireless sensors are not RFID at all. They assume, for some reason, that radio frequency identification applies only to simple devices—whether passive or active—that lack computing power or an operating system. In reality, all wireless sensors use RF, and most are used to identify an object or location (an area of a putting green, for instance) and, therefore, they are indeed RFID.

As we build a smarter planet, companies are using simple wireless devices—passive RFID tags—to identify and locate products, tools, reusable assets and so forth. But they are also utilizing more sophisticated RFID tags not just to communicate the identify of an object and its location, but also to monitor its temperature, movement, speed, level of vibration and so on.

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