Wireless sensors dump batteries and go green

By John Cox, Network World |  Green IT

Wireless sensor start-up GreenPeak promises you'll never have to change a battery again. For networks that can grow to include hundreds of thousands of radio-powered sensors, that's a big deal.

The company's line of sensors, based on the IEEE 802.15.4 radio standard, are designed to work with various kinds of "energy harvesters." These are well-known techniques that convert one form of energy, such as vibration or solar rays, into the tiny drip of electrical power needed to run the sensors themselves and the tiny radios that link them in an intelligent mesh. One energy harvesting technique, called piezo electricity, subjects certain materials, such as crystals, to mechanical stress in order to create an electrical current.

Wireless technology makes it possible to deploy sensor networks more easily, because it eliminates the work of running cables and power lines. But the sensors still need power, and having a battery in each device can create a massive and expensive maintenance problem, says Cees Links, founder and CEO of GreenPeak. A pilot sensor network in a British river, set up to monitor for flood conditions, would be impossible if it relied on batteries, for example.

That's true even where batteries are designed to last five years, says Sam Lucero, an analyst with ABI Research. "Multiple sources I've spoken to say that there is still a desire by the end customer to reduce the need to manage the battery changing function," he says. "At many hundreds or thousands of nodes, that could get onerous."

Lucero says the power issue is not a critical challenge for the wireless sensor industry, but eliminating batteries is certainly a "nice to have [feature], a means for technology vendors to reduce operational complexity for the end-customer."

To work with the energy harvesters, GreenPeak has created its own mesh protocol stack, though it also offers the standard ZigBee protocols. "The company sees no reason why energy harvesting couldn't be used in conjunction with ZigBee and expects to have this capability eventually," Lucero says. "They make the point that other 802.15.4 IC vendors and module providers are working in this direction and I agree with that, though I believe this is the first IEEE 802.15.4-based product with this type of capability."

Founded in 2005 as Xandu Wireless, GreenPeak was formed to create a package of standards-based components, software and interface that would let customers quickly create and deploy large-scale wireless sensors networks. Links played a key role in early Wi-Fi products from Lucent and Agere, including the Orinoco line of 802.11 wireless LAN access points. The company is funded by a quartet of British and European venture funds.

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