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Dust Networks hooks up with Linear Technology: Will energy scavenging ever be the same?

Q:What do you get when you cross a maker of super-efficient power management chips with a wireless sensor network company? A: We're about to find out.

That might be the punch line to the recent acquisition by Linear Technology Corp. of wireless sensor networks supplier Dust Networks Inc. The official release about this development says the acquisition will let Linear offer "a complete high-performance wireless sensor networking solution," and goes on to say that Dust Networks’ low-power radio and software technology complements Linear’s strengths in industrial instrumentation, power management and energy harvesting technology.

Apparently the financial community applauds the link up of the two companies. The financial services firm Piper Jaffray & Co. says it believes the Dust Networks deal, Linear Tech's first in 30 years, could eventually accelerate Linear's growth. Piper also thinks the acquisition could ultimately prove to be one of the most transformative deals in the semiconductor industry in 2011.

Linear officials say Dust Networks’ ultralow power wireless systems complement the analog and digital sensor interface ICs and energy harvesting power management products that Linear is known for. Linear Technology's Vice President of Signal Conditioning and High Frequency products Erik Soule says the acquisition was a way for Linear to move up the food chain in the sensors area. "We do a lot of sensor interface business, but everything we do goes through a wire that eventually connects to a battery. Dust gives us a way of offering a more complete solution and a way of creating a network that ties to a gateway that relays information to a host. In the big picture, that is the next level up the food chain for the applications we go after."

Linear also says the overlap between its customers and those of Dust is significant. "In visiting Dust customers, I have found Linear parts on the board in about half the applications," says Soule.

Linear doesn't think its link with Dust will hurt the relationships it has with companies fielding similar product lines. "We sell power management and low-power signal conditioning to some of Dust's competitors in a roundabout way, but we are not getting into awkward situations where we are competing against someone we don't want to compete against," says Soule.

Dust will continue to maintain facilities separate from those of Linear. "Dust is fabless and we don't expect that to change. We will keep them relatively independent," says Soule. "We will probably make suggestions, sit in on each other's design reviews, and influence Dust's designs in areas where we are stronger. But the relationship will be characterized more by guiding and adding new features rather than by making changes in their architecture."

The “Smart Dust” architecture was first conceived by Dr. Kris Pister, founder and chief technologist of Dust Networks, as a simple way to deploy intelligent wireless sensors. The scheme uses a self-forming mesh of nodes, or “motes,” which collect and relay data, and a network manager that monitors and manages network performance and sends data to the host application. This technology is now the basis for a number of networking standards. All motes in a SmartMesh network are designed to run on batteries for years.

Despite Dust's small size (37 employees), it has managed to devise interesting technology. "These guys have produced a novel radio that consumes much less power than that of their competition. They have their software gusy sitting next to their hardware guys and they have engineered every microcoulomb out of the system," says Soule.

Linear Technology Corp.:www.linear.com

Dust Networks: www.dustnetworks.com

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