SAN JOSE, Calif. The Internet Engineering Task Force has kicked off a new effort that could deliver a key building bock for wireless sensor networks. The Routing Over Low-power and Lossy Networks (ROLL) group aims to define a standard for Internet Protocol as early as next summer.
Sensor networks are seen as a harbinger of the next major phase of computing, creating an Internet of things. Several companies are already fielding small battery-backed sensor nodes based on a processor and some memory.
The ROLL effort aims to create a standard way to link such nodes and their networks with the broader Internet. It will support any link including Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and 802.15.4.
"There has been an explosion of proprietary protocols for sensor networks in the last five years," said Jean-Philippe Vasseur, a distinguished engineer in the corporate technology group at Cisco Systems who will co-chair ROLL.
"When each one aims to become an ad hoc standard you wind up with a model of many translation gateways that leads to a complex and expensive architecture that doesn't scale if you want to get to a true Internet of things," he said.
So far about 250 people have signed up on the group's email reflector to work on the standard including people from companies such as France Telecom, Intel, Sun Microsystems and home automation specialist Zensys. More than 100 turned out for the group's first meeting in late March.
The group will assess requirements in sensor nets for use in home and industrial automation as well as urban settings. It is building on the work of the IETF 6LoWPAN group (RFC 4944) that specified use of IPv6 over low power wireless nets.
"There are thousands and thousands of sensor networks in place in cars and buildings today but most do not use IP," said Vasseur. "What we are trying to do is create a way these sensors can talk to each other without needing a proprietary translation gateway," he added.
The group could pick or extend an existing protocol before it wraps up its efforts in June 2009. If it does not find anything suitable, it could be re-chartered t define a protocol, a process that could take an additional 18 months.
"Arch Rock has been shipping IP routing over 802.15.4 for a year now, so I would say we are the farthest along in this area," said David Culler, a sensor network pioneer who is co-founder and chief technology officer of startup Arch Rock and co-chair of ROLL.
A number of other researchers are working on IP-based routing protocols for sensor networks.
"Sun has some work in this area as have others in Korea, Finland and groups elsewhere in Europe," said Culler who is also a professor of computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. "Not all of them are public yet and some are academic while others are commercial," he added.
For its part, Cisco has no wireless sensor network products to date, but it is keenly interested in making sure the sector adopts the same IP-based standards that are used in the business communications networks it serves, said Vasseur.
ROLL also will be responsible to set a security standard for its routing protocol. In addition, it is taking into account scenarios that support "structured mobility" such as the need to move machines around on a factory floor.
"There's an assumption in our work that supported devices are not moving all the time," said Culler.
The market for sensor networks is still relatively small, but analysts expect it will grow dramatically over time.
"There's no question this is happening, but where it takes off is always clearest in hindsight," said Culler. "I've been working in this area for more than a decade and all the pieces are now lining up and starting to come together," he added