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Connecting the World with a WirelessHart

A Conversation with Dust Network President, Joy Weiss

February 15, 2013
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Dust Networks is a pioneer in the field of wireless sensor networking technology that connects smart devices. The company's products are built on 802.15.4 SoC technology, which offers ultra low power consumption for wire-free operation on batteries or through energy harvesting. Dust’s portfolio of standards-based products include: SmartMesh IP, which is built for IP compatibility and is based on 6LoWPAN and 802.15.4e standards and SmartMesh WirelessHART products, which are designed for harsh industrial environments where low power, reliability, resilience and scalability are key. SmartMesh WirelessHART complies with the WirelessHART (IEC 62591) standard. Dust Networks was acquired by Linear Technology in December 2011.

MWJ spoke with Joy Weiss, president of Dust Networks at Linear Technology. Weiss has held executive leadership positions over the past 30 years at a variety of private and public technology companies and was CEO of Dust Networks when it was acquired by Linear Technology. She has served on the boards of several private companies in Silicon Valley and holds a BSEE from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

How are wireless networks being adopted in the marketplace?

Wireless sensors are about being able to put sensors anywhere. For instance, most of the major manufacturing process companies now have wireless products in the field. Dust Networks is the market leader for wireless sensor hardware. Our customers, companies like Emerson (Network Connections) have over 20 different instruments that they sell to the process industries including temperature sensors, pressure sensors, etc. Not only do they have wired versions of these sensors, they all now have wireless versions of these sensors that will all interact with other vendors that comply to the WirelessHART standard.

When we are talking to those kind of customers, we don’t have to sell them on wireless or WirelessHART standards, as it is well accepted in the industry, instead we are selling the specific value proposition that we bring to the table, which is about ultra low power and a high level of flexibility and functionality that supports operation such as how the system is managed, visibility into the network and optimizing how the traffic flows within the network which goes beyond the  way some standards are defined.

Wireless networks are being adopted by many different markets because the technology is a game changer. One of my favorite customers that we talk about is a company called Streetline. They put sensors on a parking spot in the meter and gateways on objects such as a street lights on a busy street and they are able to have a parking spot tell the city when the spot is vacant or full. They monitor when a car comes and goes, which allows them to better manage traffic and determine and direct drivers to wherever parking spots are available. In San Francisco they now have an iPhone app that drivers can download and use to locate open spaces which is helping tremendously with reducing traffic from drivers looking for parking spaces.

So how do these opportunities come about?

Many first time conversations are with people who are pretty high up in an organization, those who are contemplating new kinds of systems and services. They aren’t necessarily experts in wireless but they are trying to understand what the enabling technologies are and which ones will fulfill the vision they have for the service they want to offer, whether it’s a condition monitoring application, infrastructure monitoring or a wide variety of energy monitoring and management services.

After the strategic discussions, we get into the nitty gritty of the technology, usually through conversations with that company’s engineering management. These are the folks we work with to identify the specific requirements. Once we get down to the engineering level, our customers are often quite knowledgeable. Alhough, sometime they are not and so then we have to be prepared to fill the knowledge gaps. Fortunately our products don’t require much expertise on the part of the user; a non-technical person could take a kit and get a network up and running in a few hours. There is a lot of flexibility built into the product so we can be very accommodating to a wide range of opportunities looking to implement a wireless sensing network. We can also address many specific service details through software. From the beginning we have worked toward designing a product that takes advantage of mesh networking's self-forming and self-healing characteristics. The result is a product that is very robust and forgiving to wireless communication challenges.

What were your earliest projects?

We first went after the industrial market because it offered many opportunities to significantly reduce operating expenses through wireless networks. For instance, oil refineries need to deploy many pressure and temperature sensors throughout their facilities that were being maintained by people who typically work with tools such as hammers and wrenches rather than multi-meters and spectrum analyzers. Yet the industrial market needed the smart monitoring and sensor communications necessary to support more complex operations and reduce costs. And so the technology we developed had to be as easily deployed as the tools the facility workers were using, without special training in wireless or communication systems.

What is the state of wireless sensor networks today?

So the first order of network can be implemented by using the kit right out of the box and be able to do sensing. At the next level, we have customers that want to add wireless control to sensing operations or even more sophisticated operations. One example is where they monitor for events and then ripple instructions though a wireless control network quickly. You can do quite interesting and sophisticated things.

Could you talk about military/defense applications and how your wireless sensors address security over the network?

Security is a critical requirement for the applications we have just discussed, such as oil refineries and chemical processing plants, so all the network data is encrypted and there is a multi-layer security scheme in place and we utilize various wireless technologies that are available. There are military applications in the market, but prior to our acquisition by Linear Technologies, we were a much smaller company and therefore we were not pursuing them as heavily as we are now. Linear has a strong position in that market and so we now just beginning to scratch the surface of those opportunities. As examples, defense-related sensor networks include battlefield surveillance, treaty monitoring, transportation monitoring and scud hunting.

How has the merger and integration with Linear Technologies been working out?

The merger has gone extremely well. We have very similar cultures and our facilities were already nearby Linear, so we slipped into the company pretty readily. We went from three sales people to over 300, which has been an extraordinary journey for us. The overlap in terms of the customer space is a thousand percent and growing in ways that are very compatible with our visions for our products .

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