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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
“The principle of the Sensor Web is not just to report back to the end user—a computer or an engineer outside of the Sensor Web,” says Delin. “Unlike in typical wireless sensor networks, in a Sensor Web, each pod shares with the rest of the network all the data with all the other pods. If the network senses that everything is looking fine, it just continues to monitor. However, if action needs to be taken, those commands can come from within the Sensor Web itself. The network operating system can control the web so that certain actions can bring a response controlled by the network, but the primary point of the portal is just to look inside the web.”

Sensor Web pod 15 at Huntington Botanical Gardens is covered in mud from nearby watering and has had an antenna chewed on by a small animal.

For example, at Huntington Botanical Gardens, dry conditions detected by a Sensor Web could cause the web to automatically turn on sprinklers. If pods also contained sensors that measure barometric pressure, the web could analyze light and barometric pressure levels to predict that rain was imminent and decide not to use the sprinklers after all.

According to NASA/JPL, its Sensor Web design could transform the monitoring and control of many environments in a way that could impact many areas, including agriculture and ecology, security and homeland defense, as well as space exploration.

For example, says Delin, a Sensor Web could be linked with the control system of a fire sprinkler network. If one sensor pod detects heat or smoke or both, it could automatically communicate with other pods in the network and determine whether the pod sensing the fire is reacting to a real event and act accordingly. By determining the temperature and smoke around other sensor pods, the Sensor Web could pinpoint exactly where any fire is and turn on sprinklers only in the area that needs them, as well as identify safe exit routes.

Now Delin believes RFID can bring additional functionality to Sensor Webs by adding readers to pods that can detect and identify tags that enter their broadcast range, or neighborhood. Say, for example, firefighters are equipped with active RFID tags able to communicate over suitable distances with sensors installed around a building. A Sensor Web can be deployed quickly because each pod is programmed to immediately detect which other pods are within their neighborhood and can begin transmitting and receiving data between pods wirelessly, according to the parameters set out in the network operating system. “Firefighters could ring the building with a Sensor Web that would monitor where they are inside the building,” says Delin.

Since every pod in the network shares all the data and intelligence through a distributed, decentralized architecture, the Sensor Web can work around the failure of one pod. The pods can even cover areas where it's difficult for signals to travel, such as buildings and other structures with lots of metal and liquid in them, as they are deployed in a mesh configuration where one pod typically broadcasts to four or more other pods. That means if one link between two pods is blocked by a metal structure, data can be routed around the obstacle by sharing the data with other pods.

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