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Sensors to Network the World

Intel is working with researchers at Berkeley to develop tiny sensors that can form ad hoc networks and provide feedback on the physical world.
Aug 05, 2002—Aug. 5, 2002 - Monitoring the mating habits of Leach's Storm Petrel, a seabird native to the western North Atlantic, is like chasing ghosts. The petrels spend most of their lives in offshore waters and return to land only during the breeding season. They nest in burrows in soft, loose soil and are active around breeding colonies only in the late evening. If researchers disturb the birds, they will often abandon their nests, leaving their eggs vulnerable.

Breeding ground sensor
Researchers at the College of the Atlantic have found a unique way around the problem. In May, they placed a dozen sensors – fist-sized devices in a box -- around the petrels' breeding grounds on Great Duck Island, a 200-acre spit of land about an hour and a half south of Bar Harbor, Maine, by boat. The devices have infrared, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure and sound sensors. They are networked wirelessly and can transmit data to an 802.11b wireless hub. From there, the information is uploaded to the Internet via satellite. Since the researchers placed six more sensors in burrows in July, they have been able to monitor the birds in their natural habitat without ever setting foot on the island.

The petrel project is one of the first real-world applications for wireless sensors developed by the Intel Research Laboratory at Berkeley. The lab, an unusual cooperative research project between a private company and a university, was opened in the spring of 2001 and is led by Prof. David Culler. The aim of the project is to develop inexpensive sensors that can organize themselves into ad hoc networks and provide information about the physical world to information systems. Culler calls the sensors "motes" because they may one day be as small as dust motes. Intel refers to the technology as "sensor nets."

Whatever you call them, the sensors are part of the new branch of computer science that aims to link the physical and digital worlds. Sensor nets use radio waves for wireless communication, but the focus of the research is not on identification. These are not networked RFID tags. But sensor nets could benefit companies in ways that RFID can't.

Right now, each sensor node costs more than $100 to manufacture and is about the size of a large coin and several times as thick. Eventually, researchers expect to get them down to the size of a jellybean and make them so cheap they will be disposable. Hans Mulder, co-director of the Intel Research Lab at Berkeley, says we are about four or five years away from commercial deployment and about ten years away from having sensors that cost less than a dollar.

While RFID will be used to track the movement of things, sensor nets will largely be used to monitor environments or the physical state of objects. Mulder envisions a day when thousands of inexpensive sensors will be embedded in walls to provide feedback on the structural integrity of a building after an earthquake. Sensor nets could give rise to precision agriculture where every grapevine has a sensor that tracks moisture, humidity, temperature and sunlight. And sensors on machines in a manufacturing plant could detect a rise in temperature or excessive vibration and signal that a repair needs to be done before a part breaks.

Researchers at North Dakota State University and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, are working to combine RFID tags with sensors and use them in a similar way. But the ability to network sensors makes them preferable in certain situations. In the case of the petrel project, researchers were able to put the sensors in key location based on where the birds dug their burrows. All they had to worry about was making sure there was another sensor within a few feet. The sensors form their own network and relay the information to a transit node that passes it to the 802.11b networking device. If they had chosen to use RFID tags, they would have had to position readers carefully to cover all the locations they wanted to monitor. Imagine trying to cover a field that is hundreds of acres wide or a building like the Pentagon.
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