As a department head at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s R&D arm, David Tennenhouse spent the late 1990s approving or denying funding for hundreds of far-out military programs. One proposal he reviewed, from a research team at UC Berkeley, outlined a concept called smart dust – fleck-sized wireless sensors intelligent enough to organize themselves into autonomous networks.

Dropped from a passing helicopter, the sensors could spy on enemy movements or detect a hidden stash of mustard gas. Tennenhouse was intrigued enough to authorize several hundred thousand dollars in funding. Then he moved on to the next bizarre proposal.

Tennenhouse left Darpa in 1999 to found Intel Research, the semiconductor giant’s stab at offbeat R&D. Charged with finding up-and-coming growth technologies, he gave little thought to smart dust. A neat plaything for the Pentagon folks maybe, “but not all that relevant to my new role at Intel,” he recalls thinking. A network of minuscule sensors, each containing only a few dollars’ worth of circuitry, just didn’t seem like a moneymaker.

That is, until August 2000, when Tennenhouse was invited to Berkeley to check out a student-designed mote – the housing that contains a sensor assembly and a radio antenna to allow it to communicate with other motes. While examining the circuit board, something clicked. If motes could get significantly smaller – say, small enough to fit inside pill-bottle caps – they’d be unobtrusive enough to go anywhere. And that, Tennenhouse thought, would mean a windfall to the company providing the processors. Intel could dominate the high-volume sensor market just as it has ruled the high-powered chip scene with Pentiums.

This time, Tennenhouse threw millions at sensor research. He set up an Intel facility at UC Berkeley and told his researchers to use their imagination to develop new configurations and applications. Three years after that landmark trip to the East Bay, Intel’s sensor investment remains trivial compared to the billions it has plunged into, say, the new Centrino wireless chip or its Flash memory business. The entire annual Berkeley lab budget is about $5 million. But in this case, Intel is acting more like an angel investor – one with $15 billion in the bank – feeling around in the dark for something that’s not only different, but transformative. “It’s not a high-end computer play or a low-end mote play,” says Intel CEO Craig Barrett. “We’re looking for growth opportunities outside our core competency.”

Intel is hoping for a two-tiered payout. If sensor networks take off, that will create a need for more silicon. But the networks will also generate a huge amount of data, driving demand for more high-end PCs to process it all. The company now foresees networks consisting of thousands of motes, located wherever there’s a need for data collection, streaming real-time data to one another and to central servers. Intel imagines the day when every assembly line, soybean field, and nursing home on the planet will be peppered with motes, prodding factory foremen to replace faulty machines, farmers to water fields, and nurses to check on something unusual in room E214.

Barrett’s CTO, the perpetually caffeinated Patrick Gelsinger, can’t contain his excitement about the sensor play. Like Tennenhouse, he was converted from skeptic to devotee after a single demo. “Intellectually, it probably felt like Gordon Moore’s experience after he first saw the microprocessor and started envisioning all sorts of uses for it,” says Gelsinger. “I was a believer.” Now he hopes to produce “tens of billions of units” by the end of the decade.

Listen to technologists like Gelsinger and Tennenhouse long enough and the outlines of a strategy emerge: By thinking small, Intel could be on the cusp of something huge. Which is exactly where Intel likes to be.

Intel Research Berkeley is just one of four university-based research “lablets,” so-dubbed for their relative size and independence, set up by Tennenhouse beginning in 2001. The others – at the University of Washington, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Cambridge – are likewise dedicated to developing disruptive technologies. Though wholly funded by Intel, the lablets aren’t expected to push products down a pre-determined pipeline. As long as their work is tangentially related to silicon, the research centers can pursue whatever they wish. In England, the projects include optical switches and new programming languages; in Pittsburgh, it’s data mining tools for webcam networks; in Seattle, XML-based messaging and wireless personal area networks. In Berkeley, sensor networks rule.

The Berkeley lab occupies a plum penthouse space adjacent to the university, with a gorgeous view of San Francisco Bay. Joe Hellerstein, the director, leans back in his chair and looks toward Sausalito. The Golden Gate Bridge, he notes proudly, will soon play host to an experimental sensor network designed by professor David Culler and his students. “It’s hard to tell just by looking at it, but the bridge actually sways a few feet in high winds,” he says. “The motes, they’ll measure how far it moves to either side.”

By this June, a stretch of the bridge will be lined with about 200 motes. Each will contain chips running at 8 megahertz and accelerometers designed to measure movement caused by strong gusts. Those readings will be radioed to nearby supermotes – data way stations that are 25 times more powerful than a regular mote – before being relayed to the central server. If one reading seems out of whack, it could be a sign of a structural weakness that needs addressing before the next big earthquake.

The Golden Gate project will join several other trials already under way. Berkeley researchers installed 80 motes in the redwood groves of Sonoma County, measuring the temperature and humidity around the mammoth trees. An agriculture project placed 65 motes in a British Columbian vineyard, ready to buzz the manager’s laptop whenever an early-morning frost looms. The health research team has mocked up a home of the future at Intel’s Hillsboro, Oregon, campus, which uses wireless sensors to remind Alzheimer’s patients how to make tea or take their medication. And about 100 UC Berkeley motes help monitor the nesting burrows of Leach’s storm petrels, elusive seabirds that breed off the Maine coast
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