According to the Associated Press, the growth of wireless sensor networks presents the possibility of connecting people with physical locations and conditions in the same way the Internet connects people with computers. Thanks to a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, a University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) building has been converted into a testing ground for wireless sensor technology, monitoring traffic, weather and acoustics, among other things.

“I see this as the next wave of extending the Internet into the physical world,” said Deborah Estrin, a UCLA computer scientist and head of the Center for Embedded Networking Sensing, a six-university consortium.

Many companies are beginning to manufacture cheap and reliable sensors, while other groups are focusing on the privacy and security issues large-scale sensor networks would bring about. Today’s sensors range in size from one square inch to the size of a matchbox, but some have envisioned sensors the size of dust particles called “smart dust.”

The global market for sensor network technology could rise from several hundred million dollars, where it currently stands, to $8 billion by 2010 from home, agricultural and healthcare use. However, according to Adrian Perrig, electrical and computer engineering professor, Carnegie Mellon University, “If poorly secured networks are deployed and exploited, people may have significant concerns about sensor technology.”

The ZigBee Alliance, which has about 150 companies as members, has been formed to make network interoperability rules, although such standards still are years from being completed.

All this means sensors are shedding their dependency on wiring, and this niche market may soon belong to information technology. Electrical contractors may have to find a way to adapt to this change. EC