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Forest-Monitoring Sensors Harvest Energy From Trees

The U.S. Forest Service is deploying a climate sensor network powered by energy harvested from living trees.
By Laurie Sullivan
From the weather stations, the data will flow into an application used by numerous government agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Each state also uses a variety of fire data and applications.

While the goal is to gather information from a larger area with fewer portable weather stations, in an effort to predict which are high-risk areas for fires and how the fires will react, the network has much broader capabilities for the future, Henderson says. "We are looking at a very small piece," she states. "Once we get through this phase, the government has the ability to think much broader, and expand the project to collect whatever data it needs through the sensors."

The Voltree network will be linked to portable, remote, automated weather stations. These solar-powered units weigh approximately 120 pounds and sit on the ground in the forest, transmitting information about weather conditions to the satellites. The Voltree system can handle large amounts of data, Henderson notes, but limitations in the satellite transmission system at the U.S. Forest Service will restrict the installation to five nodes per portable fire station.

Theoretically, the Voltree system could transmit one-and-a-quarter miles with new satellite capabilities supported by Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R-Series (GOES-R) that provide a backbone to communicate weather information. The hope is that the government will have a new system in orbit and working by 2015, according to Andreas Mershin, an MIT research scientist and an advisor to Voltree.

The biggest difficulty Voltree faces, Mershin says, is bringing customers up to speed on the system, and putting an infrastructure in place that can manage all of the data. Features have been "dumbed-down because customers are just not quite ready," he says. For instance, the U.S. Forest Service will send information from sensors to users, but the system has bi-directional communication capabilities.

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