Intel Invests in Embedded Processor Development

Intel has set its sights on the embedded processor space. David Tennenhouse, Intel VP and director of research, told an audience at the Intel Developer Forum in San Jose that the company intends to achieve the same dominance in that market as it has in the PC microprocessor space. The market for PC processors accounts for about 200 million units annually, Tennenhouse said, while embedded processors are shipped on the order of 8.5 billion units a year.

He told attendees that Intel has committed a significant portion of its $4 billion research effort to research and development of embedded systems.

Intel is currently working with Internet pioneer Vin Cerf and staffers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., to put a four-node Internet Protocol network on Mars, Tennenhouse said. The nodes would assemble bundles of information using TCP/IP protocols. The project must take into account the "very long delays of sending IP packets over the long distances of the universe," Tennenhouse said.

Intel has already developed four processors for third-generation cellular phones, and a host of digital products within the home are "dying to be networked," Tennenhouse said. And in-home wireless networking is a market that’s "ready to pop," he said. Intel is also developing a new generation of sensors and actuators that the company plans to fabricate as part of its microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) effort. Intel researchers are studying biochips, which would "sense things that are wet."

David Culler, a University of California at Berkeley researcher who also heads up Intel's Berkeley research lab, used attendees to create "the biggest ad hoc network ever to be demonstrated" during Tennenhouse's presentation. Prior to his Presentation, about 800 tiny networking modules, each about the size of a quarter, were hidden underneath the attendees’ chairs. Culler asked attendees to find the modules, turn them on and hold them aloft so that they could "self assemble" into an ad hoc network. A majority of the modules—which have a tiny processor, memory, sensor and wireless transmitter/receiver—"woke up" and formed links, causing red LEDs on the thumbnail-sized modules to light up.

Culler encouraged attendees to keep the modules with them. During the course of the conference, some modules would "recognize" others as they came into proximity, and light up.

Intel and the University of Washington are building a network of widely spaced sensing instruments offshore to detect changes in tectonic plates. Another group is putting sensors in San Francisco buildings to report damage from future earthquakes.

Another project could help to identify missing persons by sensing motion within a network. In the first phase of that project, a research team dropped a net of "motes" from an airplane into a secluded area in northern California. Tennenhouse said that one of the most important applications of such sensing networks could help search for life on other planets.

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About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].