As if you didn't have enough on your plate already, here comes something else. Wireless sensor networks (WSNs) could be the next big thing in corporate data networking, and they're coming fast.WSNs are short-range, narrowband wireless mesh networks linking tiny battery-powered devices called motes that combine radio transceiver, microprocessor, firmware and sensors for measuring and monitoring anything and everything - motion, temperature, humidity, light, air pressure, et cetera. Motes gather data from the sensors - there could be more than one per mote - and transmit the information over the mesh, usually in real time, to a gateway device that passes the data to a larger network.Wireless sensor networks can include only a few motes or nodes, or they can include hundreds or even thousands. The mesh architecture means they can cover large areas with only one gateway, even though the single-hop range is very short, typically 50 to 100 feet. And because motes require very little power - some run for years on the equivalent of two AA cells - WSNs can be deployed in remote areas off the power grid, or in situations where running power lines is prohibitively expensive.Sensor networks are not new. Wired sensor networks are already an established part of many industrial processes. But low-cost, relatively easy-to-deploy sensor networks with miniature, low-power sensing devices are new. Potential applications range all over the map. "In a way, it's limited only by the imagination," says Robin Duke-Woolley, a UK-based principal at Harbor Research Inc., a San Francisco research firm that has been tracking the WSN market. "Wireless sensor networks can be used with virtually any type of sensor."Duke-Woolley says IT and telecom managers need to come to grips now with the potential widespread deployment of WSNs in their organizations. WSNs will generate a flood of real-time data. " need to be able to deal with that flow in real time and report it in real time and that is typically not what has happened before," he says. "The systems designing now need to take account of this data, and what it could mean. It's not well understood yet how strategic it could be for a company."Current WSN applications, according to San Diego-based ON World Inc., another analyst firm tracking the WSN market, include automated meter reading (AMR), monitoring and control of building and home HVAC and lighting systems, building access control, environmental monitoring and industrial process and equipment monitoring. Duke-Woolley adds medical monitoring (of patients), precision agriculture and consumer electronics as emerging market segments."AMR is currently the largest WSN market with nearly half the deployed nodes," says Mareca Hatler, ON World's director of research and senior market analyst. "But we predict that building, industrial, and residential markets, in that order, will be the largest in five years."Municipal utilities can set up small WSNs in homes or bigger ones in apartment blocks to aggregate data from various meters - water, electricity, gas - and send it through the gateway and over a wide area network to a central collection point. It not only saves sending meter readers out, it can provide home and building owners with real-time feedback on how much they're consuming. "And you hope as a result they start to conserve," Duke-Woolley notes.Building owners are also starting to install their own WSNs to measure temperature and humidity levels at many places in a building. When used in conjunction with automated baffles in HVAC ducts, they make it possible to control climate by zones. Benefits: tenants are more comfortable, the building uses less energy, and energy costs go down.Environmental angleMany of the most intriguing applications have an environmental element. Reducing energy use and costs is a strong motivator in many WSN market segments. Sensicast Inc., a Needham MA-based firm that makes turnkey WSN systems, has publicized the case of one customer, Hollingsworth & Vose Co., a paper manufacturer. Hollingsworth saw a 30% reduction in energy costs after deploying a Sensicast WSN to monitor efficiency of compressed air systems that drive its machines.Compressed air systems are notoriously inefficient. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, American industry spends US$1.5 billion a year on electricity to run them, and on average they operate at only 60% efficiency. "That means $600 million in wasted energy costs," Sensicast CEO Gary Ambrosino points out. The inefficiency is mostly due to air leaks and other repairable mechanical failures that in the past could only be detected by close inspection, a prohibitively costly exercise.Hollingsworth had an annual energy bill of $100,000 to power its compressed air systems. It knew a big chunk was wasted due to the inefficiency of its systems, and turned to sensor networking as a possible solution. According to Ambrosino, Hollingsworth received a quote of $79,000 for a wired sensor network. With the Sensicast wireless network it eventually implemented, which cost only $12,500, Hollingsworth saved $30,000 in energy costs in the first year.The Hollingsworth case shows the kind of clear return on investment (ROI) that is at least sometimes possible with WSN, Ambrosino says. It's not the only one, though. A manufacturer of blood incubators reduced the time for final testing of its products from three hours to 30 minutes by installing sensor networks in the machines. The WSNs reported test readings of operating temperature, eliminating the need for time-consuming manual measurement.An aluminum plant used a wireless sensor network to monitor and control temperature levels and boost efficiency in the cooling step of its cold metal rolling process. It increased production by 6 million pounds of aluminum a year as a result. "And that drops right to bottom line," says Ambrosino.There are other equally compelling use cases with an environmental angle. Agribusiness, for example, is starting to use WSNs to monitor growing conditions for high-margin crops such as fruit, wine grapes and even orchids. The WSN typically measures soil moisture or humidity levels and transmits data to an IT system that uses it to calculate optimum growing conditions.The system can be integrated with an automated irrigation system. When moisture levels fall below a certain threshold, the sprinkler system automatically comes on. "It not only saves water, but they get higher yields because they're able to keep moisture at a consistent level," says Joe Polastre, co-founder and chief technology officer at Moteiv Corp., a San Francisco company that makes motes used in one such vineyard system.The list of potential applications, especially industrial applications, goes on and on. Sensicast has focused primarily on what Ambrosino refers to as "information-intensive manufacturing processes where there's useful information generated in the process that drives immediate decisions about managing it." One example is monitoring factory equipment for early warning signs of machine failure. The sensors can measure temperature levels or vibrations, which sometimes signal impending failure. "Think of a printing press at a newspaper, for example, where you have that process intensity and where you absolutely need to ensure the process doesn't stop," Duke-Woolley says. "Installing can be a very cost effective way of staying on top of it."Ambrosino says a Montreal manufacturer of huge steel-wire burnishing brushes used in automotive plants is considering incorporating temperature-sensing WSNs from Sensicast in the motors that drive its brushes. It hopes to reduce failures by automatically sensing when a motor is running at too high a temperature and automatically cutting over to a redundant motor, allowing the first to cool.Security helpSecurity, an urgent need in many sectors post 9/11, is another market segment where WSNs can pay dividends, Duke-Woolley says. Companies are using WSNs with motion sensors to monitor perimeters. "The great thing about mesh networks is that they're very easy to install and they're all wireless," he says. "If you've got along a fence, you can have the signal jumping along ."They can be used in a similar way to monitor gas pipelines for leaks or intentional ruptures. "There you have miles and miles of pipeline," Duke-Woolley says. "If you can have wireless sensors stuck to those pipes all along, it's a very cost-effective way of monitoring them."ON World's Hatler notes that WSNs are up to 90% less expensive to install than wired networks because of the cabling and labour costs involved in wired solutions. "So the return on investment depends on how critical it is to get a measurement or control point that one doesn't currently have," she says. "For example, the cost of not doing continuous monitoring of a power plant might be up to millions of dollars in potentially lost productivity if a piece of equipment fails unexpectedly."Average costs per node for WSNs range from about $50 (mainly in residential systems) to $1,000 (mainly industrial applications), Hatler says. Sensicast says cost per node for its WSN-in-a-box products range from $100 to $500 (all US dollars).Sensicast is part of a growing ecosystem of WSN technology providers - one of the only, it claims, that develops and manufactures all the components itself and offers turnkey systems. Other companies make some components. High-profile examples are Crossbow Technology Inc. and Moteiv (motes) and Dust Networks Inc. (mesh networking). Still others, such as Arch Rock Corp., Tendril Inc. and Augusta Systems Inc., integrate "best-of-breed" components in end-to-end systems. Most major original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) selling into industrial markets, companies such as Honeywell, Siemens AG and Emerson, now sell WSN systems as well.How pressing is the need for IT managers to come to grips with WSNs? If the business case for WSNs is as compelling as vendors and analysts say, the market should be growing by leaps and bounds, right? It is, or it's starting to. However, it clearly hasn't reached the tipping point yet.Harbor estimates there are a total of fewer than 100,000 WSNs deployed worldwide, with an average of about 14 or 15 nodes each. "But we do see that growing quite quickly," Duke-Woolley says. ON World counts WSN nodes. It places the installed base of WSN nodes in 2006 at 2 million. If Harbor's estimate of average network size is correct, the ON World count works out to about 135,000 deployments.Harbor forecasts growth in deployments of between 50% and 60% per year for the next five years, with the installed base of WSNs going over 1.5 million in 2011. But the number of nodes will grow much more quickly as companies begin to deploy larger WSNs, the firm says. ON World says the global industrial and commercial WSN market, including equipment and services, will be worth $5 billion by 2011.Sensicast claims to have more than 100 customers today. The largest networks it has sold connect hundreds of motes. One forthcoming deployment, a rocket booster manufacturing facility, may end up with as many as 10,000 nodes. Ambrosino says the rate at which the company adds new customers is increasing steadily, not spectacularly. But recent new customers tend to be bigger, richer companies, deploying multiple WSNs with more nodes.Marketing for companies such as Sensicast is starting to change. "Until recently it was just a matter of getting the word out, demonstrating the economic benefits, showing the reliability, educating customers," Ambrosino says. "An evangelism process." But more and more prospective customers now are issuing RFPs. They understand the value of WSNs, they know what they want and they're shopping for the best supplier."We're definitely getting to the tipping point" he says, "but we're not quite there yet. We expect it will happen pretty quickly now, though."Duke-Woolley notes that two factors affect how quickly a new technology market develops: awareness and understanding on the one hand, technology maturity on the other. While Ambrosino claims his company's "third-generation" technology is fully mature, Duke-Woolley notes that deploying large WSNs with hundreds or thousands of nodes is still a tricky process. "It's not something you can just roll out," he says. "Although it's getting to that stage."Technical standardsTechnical standards for WSNs, though, have pretty much solidified. The key standard is IEEE 802.15.4, which was selected by the ZigBee Alliance, a group of companies developing WSN and other short-range, low-bandwidth wireless applications, as the network access layer for use in home, commercial and utility (meter reading) networks - and maybe eventually in industrial applications of the kind we've been discussing here.As for awareness and understanding, it remains a major challenge, Duke-Woolley says. "The people who develop this technology have a certain amount of impatience, but we think the market is developing reasonably quickly."While existing WSN applications may be compelling for many organizations, Harbor believes they're just the tip of the iceberg. It sees WSNs as an enabler of a much larger phenomenon, sometimes referred to as machine-to-machine (M2M) networking, sometimes as "the pervasive Internet." Duke-Woolley is lead author of Harbor's recent M2M/Pervasive Internet Market Forecast, a report that places WSNs in this larger context.The report talks about using the Internet to gather data from far-flung WSNs monitoring assets and equipment and transmitting it to central collection points." We believe the real opportunity is using that data to create new types of customer services, predicting failures of equipment before they happen," Duke-Woolley says. "We think that's the real revenue-generating opportunity from the pervasive Internet."What should you do?What should IT and telecom managers be doing about WSNs? They certainly need to begin trying to understand the applications and the implications now, Duke-Woolley says. Sensicast hopes many will be drawn to a new turnkey WSN product aimed at the data centre that it's hoping to bring to market this fall. It solves a growing problem for IT managers, Ambrosino says. Server and workstation manufacturers such as Dell Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and IBM Corp. increasingly stipulate operating conditions with which customers must comply - primarily maintaining operating temperature at a certain level - in order to qualify for warranty support. The Sensicast product will monitor and record data centre operating temperatures and maintain an historical record customers can use to prove to vendors that they're in compliance with warranty conditions. The company's hope is that once IT managers see the benefits of this application, they will begin to look at other ways their organization can exploit WSN technology.Maybe. But even if IT managers don't see any benefits from such an application, they need at the very least to begin researching WSNs and polling line-of-business managers about their interest in the technology. If the analysts are right, WSNs could have a huge impact on their operations within a few years - or sooner.