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Waggle: An IoT Platform by Scientists, for Scientists

Computer scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory are working with a range of stakeholders, from academics to urban planners, to deploy easy-to-use sensor networks for better understanding the built and natural environments in which we live.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor

The platform is based on nodes that can accommodate a wide range of sensors. The nodes communicate to the cloud (or "beehive," in Waggle parlance) via various technologies, including wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi or a cellular network via a subscriber identity module (SIM) card. In the cloud, the data transmitted by the nodes is further processed and is then sent directly to Internet-based applications, or to another cloud-based server for analysis. The Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) protocol is used to secure data transmissions sent via the Waggle network.

Each node contains at least two microcontrollers, which run Linux-based open-source software developed at Argonne by Beckman and his colleagues. The software is designed not only to manage and collect data from the sensors attached to the node, but also to perform some processing. Thus, the software was developed as a move away from what Beckman calls "the Internet of Dumb Things," wherein sensors are deployed to simply collect and transmit data, and not carry out any data processing.

Pete Beckman
"I don't mean to sound pejorative, but... we really want computing to happen where the sensors are placed," Beckman explains. "A lot of IoT [devices] now are just data loggers. Our interest, as computer scientists, is computing at the edges."

In an Argonne Laboratory article, Rajesh Sankaran, a computer scientist and one of Beckman's Waggle teammates, explained that integrating processing power into the Waggle nodes means that researchers who are not computer scientists can use the platform easily, programming it to respond only to specific parameters, such as temperature or sounds. This, he noted, makes the nodes essentially plug-and-play, while vastly reducing the amount of unneeded data that is collected.

Beckman cites two very different examples of how this in-node processing power can be used. "Suppose you wanted to know what parts of the city have the worst problems [noise pollution] from people honking their horns," he states. "The bad approach would be to [collect and] send all of the audio collected at each node site to a central place. That would be a massive amount of data. A smarter way is to write a program that detects horn honks, calculates how many horns are honking per minute, etc.," and then transmit just this information to the cloud, not the audio data itself.

In a different example—though one also based on tracking sounds—Beckman says environmental scientists at a forest preserve in Illinois' Cook County are interested in using Waggle to track a specific frog species that vocalizes for only a few days each year. Rather than continuously recording throughout the weeks or months when the frog might vocalize, Beckman explains, the nodes would be deployed with "a sensor that knows what the vocalization sounds like and automatically sends an alert to staff when the sound is detected. That's smart IoT, where computing is happening at the edges."

The Waggle nodes are not set up to communicate to each other through a mesh topography, Beckman says. However, he notes, they could be configured to do so in the future. The nodes are line-powered, but Beckman reports that the Waggle team is currently working on a battery-powered iteration, as well as one that could receive power through a solar panel or other energy source.

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