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11/19/2004
11:00 AM
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Sensitive Sensors

Research could help scientists gather data from far-flung locations more easily

Companies and government agencies are starting to build networks of low-cost sensors to report data about seismic activity, the weather, and even warehouse conditions from remote locations back to central computers. Using sensor networks, scientists and business analysts can hone their insights by analyzing a constant stream of data from the field.

But getting sensor data transmitted wirelessly back to servers can require building wireless radio base stations near those networks or installing other expensive or impractical gear. Now, researchers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Illinois have designed a prototype "extensible sensor platform" that could reconfigure itself to send sensor data over whatever wireless network is available. The project, funded by the Office of Naval Research, combines standard sensor technology with a software radio that can potentially turn itself into a global positioning system receiver, cell phone, ham radio, Wi-Fi card, or Bluetooth device. If it works in field trials expected next year, the research could let scientists gather data from far-flung locations more easily.

"Part of the fantasy of sensor networks is you just throw a handful of these things out into the field and walk away from them," says Dave Pointer, the technical lead on the project. "Our approach is to use infrastructure that's already there," such as cell-phone towers.

Pointer and his colleagues at NCSA's experimental technologies division want to develop a single programmable chip that can act like a variety of wireless devices and interface with standard sensors. The chip would start by configuring itself as a GPS receiver to pinpoint its location. Then it could look up in a database what networks are available nearby or sniff them out from the spectrum in the air. An NCSA-type sensor could then configure itself to send its data back to home base.

The NCSA prototype device can act like a 902-MHz cordless phone to transmit temperature data between chips. The technology could mean sensors that always know where they are and how to communicate could help study the environment or report the conditions of a truck traveling cross-country. If NCSA can affordably transfer the technology to industry, it could be a boon to companies that need deeper insight into field operations--even when there's no one around to monitor them.

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