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Sensor networks could eventually complement RFID in tagging and tracking inventory.

For most companies, mesh networks are still a long way off. But for some, analysts say the sensor revolution is closer than we might think. In the automotive industry, for example, car makers are very interested in figuring out how mesh networks can create greater efficiencies and service for drivers. "Cars are getting much more intelligent already," says AMR's Gaughan. "The question is whether the car manufacturers can monetize it. They already have OnStar and in-vehicle services. There is a potential to pull in some additional sensor data and leverage it."

At Norwich Union, one of the largest car insurance companies in the U.K., customers have the option of enrolling in the "Pay As You Drive" program, which uses GPS to track drivers and charge variable insurance rates based on where they go, rather than a flat fee. But that's just the beginning, says program director Robert Ledger. In future stages of the plan, he envisions an entire sensory network that can inform the insurance company the moment an incident occurs on the road. "For example, we could tell if the air bag has been deployed. If the car has been in an accident we could sense the severity of that impact," he says. That could allow Norwich to process claims faster and with greater accuracy.

Gartner's Reynolds envisions an office where sensor nodes are installed on office walls roughly 30 feet apart from each other, creating an invisible sensor field that can track anything that has a sensor on it. "Pretty soon, the CIO can actively track all the IT assets in the building," he says. "You could also see, for example, how many wheelchairs are on the third floor of a hospital, and how often they've been used." The added intelligence of sensor networks can augment existing RFID solutions. A passive RFID asset tracking system could be incorporated into a broader and more active sensor network to provide real-time, varied information on not just location, but status of valuable inventory. A purveyor of frozen foods, for example, would be able to not only locate his merchandise, but know when the temperature has warmed to unacceptable levels.

Gaughan expects to see a lot of consolidation in the nascent sensor market, "because no one wants to buy pieces and fit them together by themselves." But Intel's Nachman disagrees. "I think it's too early to see where the market is going to go," she says. "If you look at the sensors themselves, the majority of them are analog, some are digital, and they all use different interfaces. If all these interfaces become defined, then you can easily have different providers offering different pieces of the puzzle."

Ultimately, the thing to remember is that sensor networks are about data collection and using that information for deeper business analytics. Accenture's Ferguson believes this is a natural evolution of what he calls an "insight" economy. "The whole practice of lifting data has to be raised to another level," he says. "The winner will be the one who asks the data the most interesting questions."

This article was originally published on 12-01-2004
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