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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
Because pods can communicate automatically over significant distances, Delin maintains that the time it takes to set up a Sensor Web is normally constricted by the time it takes to get to each pod site and by the need to record the pod’s geographical location so that it can be retrieved. Although the pods could be fitted with a GPS receiver to determine where they are and avoid having to map out their location, Delin maintains that the cost and power demands of a GPS receiver do not always make GPS a viable option.

Bamboo is used for mounting, because it’s lightweight and resilient to the Antarctic environment.

Sensor Webs could have practical benefits for manufacturers. In an industrial environment in which a Sensor Web is linked to software that controls a manufacturing process, for example, the Sensor Web could track RFID-tagged components of a product being manufactured and use the intelligence embedded and shared in the web to ensure that automated processes are kept synchronized throughout a manufacturing process. “If there are too many subassemblies being developed,” says Delin, “the Sensor Web can automatically slow down production to meet the capability of another part of the manufacturing process.”

The difference between deploying a Sensor Web to do this versus using more traditional manufacturing control systems where the intelligence in the system resides on servers away from the shop floor is the cost and speed of deployment. “Wired control systems can cost up to $200 per foot of cabling deployed,” says Delin. “With the wireless capabilities of the Sensor Web, that cost is avoided, and there is the additional flexibility for the network to automatically reconfigure around changes in the production layout.”

RFID could also be added to the sensor network. A sensor pod fitted with an RFID tag could be attached to a mobile piece of equipment such as a forklift so that the piece of equipment could be among the objects monitored inexpensively by the Sensor Web.

From the start, Delin has required that the sensor networks be built from commercially available computing and sensor hardware, in order to benefit from the lower costs of such equipment and the development resources of the broad commercial market. “We use off-the-shelf hardware, but we develop the software and the packaging [the pod enclosure],” says Delin. “The advances in telecommunications and computing markets make microcontrollers—small processing chips that are developed and designed to handle limited or specific data—and other components cheaper and more powerful every 18 months. The large chip manufacturers have made it easy to ride Moore’s law.” The cost of a Sensor Web pod depends on the sensors that are required, but Delin says the cost can be as little as a “couple of tens of dollars each.”

Now RFID is fitting into his plan. “As RFID technology becomes increasingly affordable, says Delin, “it can become a subcomponent of the Sensor Web.”

Though Sensor Webs are still in their infancy, Delin believes the potential of such networks to help control environments and industrial processes are enormous. “Sensor Webs are now where PCs were in ’81 or ’82,” says Delin. “They can perform relatively simple tasks today, but there is still a hell of a lot more development that we can do. Instead of asking where will they be deployed in five years time, it’s more likely to be a case of, Where won’t they be deployed?”

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