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Turning the world into a sensor network

Carnegie Mellon projects show you need more than a battery-powered radio

By , Network World
August 11, 2010 11:16 AM ET
CMU-Firefly

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One key result is that Nano-RK can enforce energy budgets at both the task level and the system level, minimizing power.

The FireFly infrastructure has been deployed in one of the many coalmines honeycombing the Pittsburgh area. During regular operation, the sensors provide a range of standard sensor data, and most importantly track the location of each miner. In an emergency, the FireFly network can switch over to high-rate operation for voice communications.

It's these kinds of uses that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hopes to encourage via the PSII project, turning the Pittsburgh area into a showplace for "smart infrastructure" technology: the hardware and software needed to deploy and manage lots of wireless sensors, often in places "where the sun don't shine." The state awarded a multi-million dollar development grant to launch PSII on the CMU campus, as part of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Construction workers are creating two research centers, one funded in part by Canadian transportation giant Bombardier, the other by IBM.

The Bombardier Collaboration Center will draw researchers from business and academia to collaborate on ways to combine civil infrastructure systems, including transit operations, with "cyber infrastructure" systems – computers, networks, sensors and software. The IBM Smarter Infrastructure Lab will focus on the challenges of collecting and processing real-time sensor network data, and of creating analytic tools to understand what it means.

"A lot of the research work will be less on the sensors themselves and more on the fact that many kinds of sensor systems are being deployed," says Matt Sanfilippo, PSII executive director. "The challenge is how to make them talk to each other, to network [together] multiple networks, and in a relatively simple way to manage them and the systems they're installed in.

In a typical modern building, both heating/air conditioning systems and fire and smoke detectors could make use of real-time data from temperature sensors, Sanfilippo says. But today, these are separate and usually proprietary systems. "We want a way of doing sensing that can make the data available to any application that needs that specific data," he says. "It's analogous to the evolution of the Internet, and we want to leverage that."

Another research focus will be combining data from point sensors, like temperature or pressure, with streaming data from video or infrared cameras, which can treated just like conventional sensors.

Both the Bombardier and IBM facilities will be outfitted with an array of sensors and sensor networks.

CMU's past sensor projects, via its Center for Sensed Critical Infrastructure Research, show both the challenges and the potential for intelligent wireless sensor networks. One recent project with the federal Department of Energy focused on attaching ultrasonic sensors to natural gas pipelines to detect metal degradation and cracks. Not itself an original idea, the CMU work focused on how to greatly improve the accuracy of such systems, to distinguish between a real crack and the vibration caused by an 18-wheeler rumbling over a crossing.

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