Thursday, May 31, 2007

Scatterweb—a European contender in the Wireless Sensor Network market

I recently learned of a new player in the Wireless Sensor Network space called Scatterweb. They provide nodes, gateways, and software development kits for applications such as:

- Supply Chain Management / Asset Tracking / Logistics
- Container Tracking and Security
- Automated Meter Reading (AMR) / Industry Automation
- Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
- Facility Management

Their tools work with Zigbee and RFID. Shipping container security is a key application so RFID plays a key part in the application. As David Nagel told me, RFID tells you what it is, GPS tells you where it is, and wireless sensors tells you its condition.

They’ve integrated their tools into Microsoft Robotics Studio. They call their software Scatter Tools. Like most vendors, their software is a simple GUI handling network management functions. This software has a drag and drop interface which is a step above others, but there’s not much more there.

To get a flavor for how their products work, you can see a German TV news story here. Even if you don’t know Germany, you still get the idea of how their product works.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Power Film for Wireless Sensor Network Applications

Wireless sensor networks are used in environmental monitoring applications (e.g. weather, flood monitoring, forest fires, etc) which require long term deployment in an outdoor setting. Since battery power is the key constraint, solar energy is a useful option for powering the nodes. When I last looked into solar cell arrays they came encased in glass with bulky metal frames to hold them together. The type sold for home installations were priced in the stratosphere. If a tree fell on it and broke the glass then it would no longer function.

In checking into the field again, I’m happy to find that solar cells have moved forward by a significant measure. In fact solar cells in the form of “thin films” is now a hot topic especially in the renewable energy space. One blogger calls 2007 the Year of the Thin Film. Solar cells come in flexible packaging making it easier to mount to a roof or attach to a device.

Power Film appears to b be a key player in this field. One can example of their work is the “Fusion” Solar Messenger Bag which won a CES award last year. They designed the solar panels into a carry on bag.

The company Power Film is based in Iowa and makes a thin film solar cell array that can be attached to wireless sensor network nodes to power them. They use a roll-to-roll manufacturing process that can create a 13 inch by 2400 ft long roll of flexible solar cell in a flexible plastic. They have a partnership with Hewlett-Packard for applying their thin film solar arrays to the back of flat panel displays.

According to their datasheet, they can generate up to 1000Watts/kg and claim to be the world’s lightest solar cell array panel.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tendril – a Pure Software Company in Wireless Sensor Networks

I met David Nagel again recently and received an update on his work with wireless sensor networks for storage container applications. He’s instrumenting a container with multiple nodes using light, humidity, temperature, and accelerometer sensors (for shock) to monitor the condition of the container. Security and anti-theft measures require increased monitoring and wireless sensor networks may be the answer.

During my visit I learned about a new startup in Colorado which makes programming Zigbee networks easier. They’re called Tendril. They make software tools for deploying Zigbee-based wireless sensor networks on hardware from TI, Ember, Freescale Atmel, and Tridum. They focus on deploying and managing wireless sensor networks rather than researching them.

Wireless sensor networks are gaining in deployments. I noticed Tendril identified three trends for the increase in wireless sensor network deployment by citing the need for:
1. reducing energy consumption,
2. reducing costs associated with wiring,
3. taking advantage of declining prices for semiconductor radios.

Their core product is called the Network Operating Platform which offers tools for building, managing, and deploying a network. They use Java and .NET-based software for their solutions.

They started in 2004 and received venture funding (around $6M according to one report) from various VC groups. It’ll be interested to watch where they land in the marketplace now that their product is shipping.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Patents – A Changing Landscape

As the number of patent applications continues to rise the backlog of reviewed and then granted applications continue to lengthen. Three years is the current backlog. The Supreme Court recently ruled combining two known technologies into a new one did not pass as non-obvious. This came in a case titled, KSR International vs. Teleflex. For details of the case check out this blog.

What’s even more nettlesome is the “business methods” patent. In this area, a concept (typically web-related) is patented. According to this article the concept for a web-site that matches advice seekers with experts who can answer their queries is already patented. How this passed the “non-obvious” test is something of a mystery.

“Patent Mining” has become a cottage industry providing some companies a business model based solely on patent protection, litigation and monetization.
Acacia Technologies
is one example that appears to be doing great business while other companies are joining into the fray. A company called Metrics Group offers a patent mining process in which they analyze submitted patents and create a visualization map of trends in the patent market.

Forgent Networks is an Austin company who mined its patents and found one for storing a JPEG image on computer media. With that in hand they initiated a campaign to sue every large vendor that stored a JPEG image on their computer, printer, camera, copy machine, and more. They won quite a few settlements.

There are those who champion the cause against those who abuse the patent system by making overly broad claims – especially in software patents. They lobby to get patents revoked. Check out the site of Public Patent Foundation.

It’s a rapidly changing landscape.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Omega Sensors – Optical Accelerometers for Seismic and Navigation Work

Accelerometers are used in many virtual instrumentation applications. With the advent of MEMs-based technology, new designs are coming out.

Omega Sensors uses an optical displacement technique based on MEMs to perform highly accurate accelerometer-based measurements for navigation. Most accelerometers use an electrical technique which needs calibration on a frequent basis. The optical technique used by Omega Sensor needs less frequent calibration. They licensed the technology from SPAWAR.

Using an electro-optical technique for measuring displacement, they are able to use MEMS on a very small level without losing any accuracy down to the 1-e-15

Similar to the piezoelectric technique of converting vibration energy into electrical energy, Omega also offers what they call the V-Power which uses MEMS as the vibration sensor.

Their displacement technique provides a high signal to noise ratio of 20 bits or more. Check out the video on this page.

Best regards,
Hall T.