Futuristic Factories with Wireless Mesh

EE Times writes:

It is the holy grail of the factory floor: hundreds of sensors wirelessly connected, monitoring motors for problems and drastically reducing energy consumption all with the precision and rhythm of a philharmonic orchestra.

The need is there, the software is there, the topology is fairly well understood and the silicon costs are falling. One market forecaster sees 169 million nodes and a $5.9 billion end-user market by 2010. Still, it’s not as easy as it looks. Wireless mesh is a new paradigm with lingering unknowns, and some wireless silicon is still more expensive than wired solutions. The goal, in the eyes of many, remains a ways off.

GE Global Research, Sensicast Systems Inc. and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have teamed up to push the agenda forward. They are engaged in a three-year, $6 million proof of concept funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that is scheduled to yield a working prototype within a year and a complete wireless-factory installation by 2006.

Each sensor node will use an inexpensive microcontroller and wireless-transceiver chip operating with the ISO-802. 16.4 wireless protocol, which involves secure handshaking between nodes. Nodes can pass along messages from other nodes, eventually reaching a “parent” gateway node that concentrates the data for transmission back to the operators. Even dead gateway nodes on the mesh can be automatically routed around if they fail.

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