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New networks take nature’s pulse

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“The potential is unfathomable,” says Kirsten West, principal analyst at West Technology Research Solutions in Mountain View, Calif. With no wires to hold back innovation, “you don’t have to worry about the physical network.”

Already a $120 million market, networked outdoor sensors will benefit from a boom in low-power microchips. Ms. West estimates that demand for the latest chips will grow 34-fold to $680,000 by 2013.

“The market is still relatively small, but the pieces are all there,” says David Culler, a wireless sensor network pioneer and computer science professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The networks that originated in university labs like his are now reliable enough that they have moved into mainstream uses in homes, buildings, factories, and the environment. The industry still needs established standards to assure that networks can talk to each other and longer battery life to keep them running.

The improvements to outdoor technology have been readily evident at Camalie Vineyards. Only a few years ago, Holler was wrapping each device’s circuit board in aluminum foil to protect them from rain, dust, and ultraviolet rays. The makeshift electronics looked better at scaring off crows than sending data. Now, he buys the circuitry snugly sealed inside yellow plastic cases, each topped with a small solar panel that can recharge the batteries.

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