Intel Looks To Blanket The World With Self-Powered Sensors

The wireless identification and sensing platform, or WISP, could be used for measuring the environment or inserted into the human body to detect medical problems.

Antone Gonsalves

December 5, 2008

3 Min Read
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Intel is developing self-powered microchips that could be implanted in the human body, a mobile phone, a building, or anyplace else where people wish to gather information.

Called a "wireless identification and sensing platform," or WISP, the devices were among several technologies described Friday by Intel CTO Justin Rattner during a meeting with reporters in San Francisco. Most of the technologies discussed are under development in Intel labs and are unlikely to reach the marketplace in products for at least three to five years.

All of the inventions were designed to be energy-efficient. The WISP sensors would use Intel technology for drawing power from the environment. "These are install-and-forget kind of systems," Rattner said.

The power would come from wireless transmissions, such as a Wi-Fi hotspot, a cellular tower, or a TV broadcast, making it possible for the sensors to continuously gather information in almost any environment, Rattner said.

In an experiment conducted by Intel in San Francisco, sensors implanted in street sweepers were used to monitor air quality throughout the city.

"We could, in fact, litter the planet with these things," he said. "Rather than depend on satellite information, we could literally get instantaneous, near-global indication of the state of the planet."

Self-powered sensors could one day go into the human body to monitor health-related activity, such as the beat of a heart. If researchers could shrink detectors to the molecular level, they could one day be capable of detecting viruses in the environment to determine the potential health risk.

Within the data center, sensors could be used to map the heat levels of the different systems in order to create a "thermally aware load management" system, Rattner said. Systems that are running hot could have some of their workloads shifted to idle systems, thereby lowering the overall temperature, which would lower the demand on cooling systems.

Along with sensors, Intel labs is experimenting with the use of microchips to gather energy from other sources, such as the sun or the movement of a trackball in a smartphone, to recharge a battery in a mobile device.

"Wouldn't it be nice if you could go almost indefinitely without recharging the battery?" Rattner said.

For Intel, sensor technology "might turn into a business opportunity" in the future, Rattner said. But a lot of the other experimental technology is likely to be licensed for use by other companies and not necessarily end up as separate Intel products.

An example of the latter is work Intel is doing with manufacturers of power supplies for computing systems. Today, most power supplies use multiple voltage regulators to take incoming AC power from an outlet and transform it into DC power at different voltage levels to power multiple components within the system, such as hard disk drives and graphics and sound cards.

The problem with the use of multiple voltage regulators is they aren't very power-efficient. As a result, traditional power supplies are from 55% to 70% efficient, Rattner said. Intel is working on technology that would let a microchip regulate power, which would boost the efficiency to 90%.

Intel is building power management within a microchip, so power levels could be adjusted microsecond by microsecond in following the fluctuations in energy needed to power CPUs or modules within a chipset, Rattner said. Today, power levels have to be kept higher than needed during light workloads to make sure enough energy is available to meet sudden demands for processing power.

Moving power management from software to hardware within a computer would improve energy efficiency during light workloads to 70% from 10% today, Rattner said.

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