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Alorie Gilbert

Staff Writer, CNET

A group of Boston-area academics is stepping up efforts to commercialize an experimental technology aimed at giving computer networks powerful new surveillance capabilities.

Boston University is leading the charge, forming a consortium to encourage businesses to use “sensor networks.” The Sensor Network Consortium, which the school announced Tuesday, has already signed up an impressive member list that includes oil giant BP, thermostat maker Honeywell, chipmaker Intel and defense contractor Textron Systems. Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst are also involved.

Researchers across the country have spent years developing sensor networks, wireless technology that can monitor large areas for changes in temperature, motion, light and other physical conditions. The networks rely on tiny battery-powered devices–as small as bottle caps–that collectively gather, process and wirelessly transmit environmental data to a central computer.

Proponents say the technology could lead to major advances in agriculture, firefighting, warfare, building security and industrial facilities. For instance, some envision using sensor networks to detect damage to oil pipelines before a disastrous leak occurs. Military experts are interested in using it to monitor battlefields for the position of enemy troops.

Despite the promise, sensor networks have been slow to find their way out of lab tests and into widespread use due to the technology’s high costs and a few lingering technical problems. In a signal that this may be changing, Dust Networks, a Berkeley, Calif., company, recently released a sensor network product for monitoring factories and buildings.

But Boston University’s Center for Information Systems and Engineering, which runs the Sensor Network Consortium, sees the need for more outreach to businesses, Yannis Paschalidis, academic director for the consortium, said. Businesses have to know the technology exists before they figure out what to do with it.

“The industry, in general, brings the applications,” Paschalidis said.

The consortium plans to focus on joint sensor network research and experimentation with commercial partners. It also intends to help fund projects by coordinating federal grants and to connect graduate students in the field with potential employers. Other members of the consortium include start-ups that develop sensor network equipment including Millennial Net and Sensicast Systems.

Technology consortia that bring industry and academic players together have worked well before. A prime example is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Auto ID Center, which linked Wal-Mart Stores, Procter & Gamble and dozens of other major companies to develop radio frequency identification technology. RFID systems based on the Auto ID Center’s work are now being adopted by hundreds of companies and government agencies around the world.