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First Thoughts
  By Dan Gilmore

August 25, 2005


Technologies to Watch: Motes


I been spending my some time recently investigating the rapidly expanding world of “motes,” a form a wireless sensor that will undoubtedly revolutionize both our lives and our supply chains.

A mote is a monitoring device that combines a small computer (including an operating system and application software), one or more sensors, and a radio for transmitting information. Motes are often spoken of interchangeably with the term “wireless sensor networks,” and aligned with the concept of “pervasive computing.” RFID is in fact a type of mote, and active tags especially are often lumped into this category. Defining the relationships of motes and RFID from a sort of academic sense is not easy, but it is clear that in many applications RFID and motes will be working together to radically change the way we monitor the environment.

The mote concept sprung in large part out of research at the University of California at Berkeley in 1999, when Kris Pister (along with Randy Katz) published a paper about Smart Dust in the ACM conference on Mobile Communications (MobiCom). The mote concept (as we know it today) was invented transferred from Kris Pister's group by David Culler at the University of California, Berkeley. Culler's group created TinyOS and is now the lead maintainer of the operating system.

The basic idea is to enable sensor networks, capable of monitoring a wide array of conditions and events (e.g., temperature, vibration, movement, magnetism, light, even pictures and video), to operate wirelessly – and to network with each other in a low cost, flexible and robust fashion. Combine this with a path towards ever smaller and smaller motes – sometimes termed “smart dust,” the size of a piece of glitter or less – and the cost to monitor things and the environment expand dramatically. Today, you can easily get a mote that is the size of a quarter, but that may be attached to a larger pack containing two AA batteries.

The easiest example: today in manufacturing plants, sensors to measure machine vibration and other conditions are connected via wire to the network, and are expensive to buy, install and maintain. With motes, initial and lifetime cost of the sensor goes way down, reducing costs for the same level of sensing dramatically, and/or allowing companies to greatly expand the number of measuring points.

Some motes can also operate in an “ad hoc’ network fashion, meaning in part that they pass their data to each other on the way to the ultimate “gateway,” rather than to the gateway directly. This can reduce the battery power needed (since the wireless distances for data are shorter), enable robustness if a mote goes bad (the data finds another path), and can allow very unusual applications with little “network design” (think sprinkling motes over a battlefield to monitor troop activity).

Eventually, motes will be in every building (e.g. monitor/control energy use), our roads (smart highways), and our homes (security, energy, lot’s more). But let’s turn to supply chain. Motes are already being used in ocean containers to look for evidence of tampering. (see SCDigest Feb. 3, 2004). They will have huge application in food, pharma, and other “cold chain” industries to closely monitor temperature, humidity and other factor. HP has tested motes with video capabilities in combination with EPC tags in a distribution center in Memphis, using image recognition software to ensure that goods are being stored in the right place.

So, we may have situations where an RFID tag (EPC or not) is directly included in the mote with one or more sensors. Or, the mote may work in conjunction with standalone EPC tags on various items. Reader networks may be motes, both generally and perhaps for areas for which a temporary network is needed. Indeed, it only though motes and related reader and application networks that consumer goods companies will really benefit from EPC.

We’ve only scratched the surface here. There are still many issues, including battery life, standards, and applications to make sense all that data. An example of the latter is a company called SmartSignal (, which can process significant amounts of data coming from machine sensors looking for signs of trouble – but they are one of a few. You’ll see more on motes later from SCDigest.

Have you been looking at motes and the supply chain? Where does the technology stand today, and how fast will it advance? How do you think about motes and RFID?

Let us know your thoughts.


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