What Took So Long?

In the late 1990s, I walked into an ISA workshop on wireless sensor networking given by Wayne Manges, an Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientist and a leading proponent of wireless sensors. Within 20 minutes, I was hooked. It all made perfect sense. It was the wave of the future. So what has taken wireless so long to catch on?

The Price Is Right
One of the strongest memories I have of Wayne's comments was an example he cited regarding the expense of upgrading a nuclear power plant. U.S. facilities were reaching the end of their operational life. The two primary components that had to be replaced to extend operations were the main cooling vessel and the wiring. Wayne's question was: Which one costs the most to replace? The answer was the wiring. In this application, the wiring cost thousands of dollars per foot. I remember thinking that with economics like this how could anyone not choose wireless.

Since then, the main question that I've puzzled over has been, what is taking so long? Wireless seems to be a no-brainer. But watching the adoption and implementation of wireless sensor networks has been like watching an ocean liner turn around.

Well, things are finally moving, and we can determine what delayed the adoption of wireless by identifying what moved it into the fast track. The first element that comes into play is technology.

The development and maturation of mesh networks solved a major technical problem for those looking to deploy wireless in the industrial and building automation spheres. The physical environments found in these applications are littered with obstacles that block or interfere with radio signals. Concrete and steel walls and heavy machinery are the norm. In these situations, point-to-point topologies just are not robust enough to deliver the necessary communications. Mesh, on the other hand, consists of multiple redundant paths, which provide the degree of reliability required by users. The topology literally worked around the communication barriers.

The second element was cost. In its early stages, wireless could come with a hefty price tag. But advances in the semiconductor industry brought miniaturization and integration to bear and made single-chip implementations of wireless, networkable sensors a reality. With this development, the cost of wireless came down, and another obstacle was removed.

The third and perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome was culture. Everyone was used to working with hard-wired networks. They were familiar, and they worked. But when wireless first appeared, it looked like black magic. Over the past 10 years, cell phones and wireless connections for laptops have become commonplace. Nearly everyone uses them, and they work. Wireless has become a household word and an everyday tool. Now the leap from cell phones and Internet cafes to wireless sensor networks isn't so great. The culture changed, and the obstacle disappeared.

Our culture changed in another way. The world economy, tight margins, demands for unthought-of efficiency, and fierce competition set the risk-averse the way of the dinosaur. People clung to the hard-wired mentality because they could be sure that the technology would work. It was safe. In the new economy, this just doesn't cut it. Users have to take risks or take retirement.

Someone recently told me that if you didn't fail from time to time, you probably weren't pushing hard enough. Well, where wireless is concerned, people are beginning to push.

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