A few months ago, an air scrubber in an Intel Corp. chip plant failed, shutting down operations while it was fixed. A sensor in the machine could have predicted the failure, but it had been several weeks since an engineer with a handheld device had checked that sensor on his quarterly rounds of about 4,000 such devices.

It won’t happen again, Intel spokesman Kevin Teixeira says. That scrubber is now part of a wireless network of sensors checked every five minutes — by “smart dust.”

A new type of technology, smart dust is also referred to as “motes” or simply “sensor networks.” It basically involves networks of tiny devices that sense conditions or movement, transmit data and control equipment. The technology is showing up everywhere from factories to trucks to office buildings.

“We see it getting large in terms of shipments quickly,” says Ian McPherson, president of Wireless Data Research Group in San Mateo, Calif. He predicts 200 million motes could ship by 2008.

While not as small as names like mote and smart dust imply, the devices are compact — from around 3.5 centimetres square by one centimetre thick to the size of a flashlight, depending on their function and sensor package. Each contains wireless communications, memory, and electronics to detect information — temperature and vibration, for example.

They can use existing wireless networks, but these tend to be power-hungry, reducing the battery life of a mote. An Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers group is developing a standard called 802.15.4 for low-power, low-speed wireless networks that are ideal for smart dust applications. It is a subset of Zigbee, a standard covering wireless network design and software.

More here.