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18 June, 2008 - 09:14 By Staff Reporter

Wireless sensor networks lacking the 'killer' instinct says Plextek

Wireless sensor networks are lacking a 'killer application' to drive widespread commercial take-up, according to a study led by Cambridge-based Plextek.

The 10-month study was commissioned by communications industry regulator Ofcom to examine technology developments in wireless sensor networks (WSNs), along with likely market growth scenarios and what the spectrum implications would be. Currently there is much industry enthusiasm and a wide range of potentially innovative uses for WSNs.  However the study found that it is the traditional sensing applications that are currently commercially exploiting the advantages of wirelessly networked sensors. These include industrial and environmental monitoring, building automation and remote sensing. Usage will continue to evolve in these areas as experience grows and the benefits of reduced installation costs and improved operational efficiency are increasingly understood. “Our research produced some very interesting conclusions,” said Steve Methley, Senior Consultant at Plextek.  “The lack of a killer application may be due to limiting factors such as the current cost of wireless nodes and a lack of understanding/experience by end users, especially regarding ‘real-world’ reliability.  There is also a need for further improvements in batteries and energy scavenging technologies – the requirement for scheduled battery replacement is an issue for many potential users.  “One likely sign of a movement towards a killer application would be the involvement of major systems integrators. Such players will increasingly come on board when there is need to take a professional approach to defining, installing and maintaining substantial wireless sensor networks.” Plextek’s study found that while existing unlicensed spectrum can adequately support WSNs, a dramatic increase in use could prove problematic. Typical radio protocols such as the popular 802.15.4 standard are designed to be polite and to check for clear channels before transmitting. This may become a problem when bands become crowded. 802.15.4 suffers due to its politeness in the face of increasing Wi-Fi usage, particularly Wi-Fi streaming applications. This may lead to the appearance that WSNs are unreliable, an especially important issue as the perception of unreliability is one of the key barriers identified for WSN adoption. The report concluded that WSNs may begin to become more widely deployed over the next three to five years, with systems continuing to adopt existing licence-free bands including 13.56MHz, 433MHz, 868MHz and 2.4GHz. The main issue for WSNs will be the crowding of bands, especially 2.4GHz with the increasing use of Wi-Fi.  Ofcom commissioned the study as part of ‘Tomorrow’s Wireless World’, Ofcom’s R&D programme for 2007/08, an annual review into the future of communications technology. For this report Plextek worked with The University of St Andrews and TWI, a Cambridge based independent research and technology organisation.

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