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NASA Creates Thinking RF Sensors

Low-cost wireless sensor networks developed by NASA can detect environmental changes and take action in response to what they detect. Now RFID is set to make them even more effective.
By Jonathan Collins
Oct 04, 2004Instead of just interpreting the world in various ways, said Karl Marx, the point of a philosopher’s work is to change the world. For the past seven years, NASA’s Kevin A. Delin, has been thinking the same thing about sensor networks.

Delin initiated and manages the Sensor Webs Project at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where a group of eight engineers is working on a new generation of wireless sensor networks. Unlike typical wireless sensor networks, which use sensors to detect environmental changes and report back to an external control system, the Sensor Web can share data throughout the network and use its embedded intelligence to act directly on any detected changes.

A map showing Sensor Web pod locations in Antarctica

So far the Sensor Web has been deployed in a monitoring role, where the core concept of the technology has proved to be reliable. Now the group is about to embark on trials that will extend the Sensor Web networks to not only monitor but also to react and control the environment around them. “You have to be very careful when deploying anything that automatically changes environmental conditions,” says Delin, “but the technology is already there to do it.”

NASA’s interest in the Sensor Web stems from wanting to deploy such a network to monitor planets other than Earth. During a trial in Antarctica in the winter of 2002-2003, the Sensor Web was deployed over an area larger than 2 square kilometers. It measured soil and air temperatures, humidity and light at five-minute intervals in the MacAlpine Hills region of the Transantarctic Mountains. The harsh cold, dry Antarctic climate is similar to conditions found on Mars. “A Sensor Web on Mars could work to detect any potential life,” says Delin. “In Antarctica, microorganisms can bloom very quickly then hibernate again, and a Sensor Web makes tracking that activity possible.” But NASA also believes that Sensor Web technology could give a significant boost to U.S. government efforts to strengthen national security by reacting to activity in monitored areas.

The NASA/JPL Sensor Webs Project began in 1997, when Delin saw the possibility of using readily available technologies developed for telecommunications and IT markets to create a wireless network in which intelligence could be embedded. Since then, Delin’s group has had the opportunity to develop the Sensor Web by testing the technology in a dozen different real-life environmental conditions, including at Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., and at a water recharge basin near Tucson, Ariz.

The deployments have provided real benefits to the site hosts as well as to NASA. For example, at Huntington Botanical Gardens—where the Sensor Web measures the light level, air temperature and humidity and, in some cases, soil temperature and moisture—the garden staff discovered that two identical plants needed to be watered differently because of soil conditions around each plant.

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