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New Mexico Scientists Use RFID to Explore Caves

University researchers are developing a wireless sensor system to track conditions within caverns and in other subterranean environments, following a test conducted at El Malpais National Monument Park.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 15, 2010Researchers at the University of New Mexico (UNM) are developing a ZigBee-based wireless RFID sensor system to help scientists better understand the natural environments found within caves and lava tubes, as well as potential changes in Earth's climate. The technology, the researchers believe, has the potential to be used not only in natural chambers, but also in mines—and possibly even on other planets, such as Mars, where lava tubes are thought to be where life would most likely be found.

Environmental factors outside a cave can affect what occurs underground. Changes in air pressure, caused by weather fluctuations, can create a breathing effect within the caves, as warm and cool air circulates in and out. Much can be understood about the planet, the scientists say, based on the conditions belowground, though little monitoring of conditions within deep or inaccessible caves has been performed to date. Any cave instrumentation employed for such monitoring would need to be deployed in such a manner as to not disturb the cave environment.

The research team first began considering the use of sensors in caves following aboveground studies involving a turbulence sensor (a thermocouple that measures fast fluctuations in temperature). In 2009, the research team—led by Anders Jorgensen, an electrical engineering assistant professor at the university—began planning a system for use in caves, in which a sensor network could track turbulence, temperature, air pressure and humidity, and then transmit that data at regular intervals to a back-end system, where the information could be stored and evaluated.

Later that year, the researchers developed a wireless system that uses 2.4 GHz RFID sensors to collect data regarding conditions within a cave. The system the team built included temperature, air pressure, humidity and turbulence sensors, though the pressure information did not prove useful, Jorgensen says, since the measuring apparatus was not sensitive enough to detect the pressure changes that the team sought to measure. Each sensor was wired to an onboard processor with a battery-powered ZigBee transceiver from Freescale Semiconductor.

During the 2009 deployment, graduate students placed a total of six sensors in natural flat areas near the walls of Junction Cave, in El Malpais National Monument, N.M., located about 90 minutes west of Albuquerque. The sensors were positioned at several elevations within the cave, which was selected, in part, due to its high ceilings. Some sensors were placed close to the floor, while others were located in the middle or near the ceiling of the tunnel. The researchers kept the sensors within the first few hundred feet of the 1,000-foot-long cave, spacing them up to 30 feet apart in order to stay within read range.

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