Anti-theft network could kill that baying car alarm, track stolen vehicles

Those annoying and often ignored car alarms could be a thing of the past if researchers developing an anti-theft sensor network have their way.

According to scientists at Penn State, the anti-theft car network would require a sensor (or multiple tiny slave sensors) in each auto that would then register it to a local master sensor.  In a parking lot the cars would form a great big secure network. 

Right now the sensors we are testing are about the size of a dollar coin according to Sencun Zhu, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Penn State.  "We will eventually make them only about a cubic millimeter, small enough to embed in a parking sticker and very inexpensive to manufacture."  A cubic millimeter is about the size of an ice cream sprinkle, researchers noted.

When a car enters a lot and parks, the sensor is alerted and it sends out a signal that lets other like-sensored cars know it is there.  Sensors in nearby cars acknowledge the signal and incorporate the new car into their network.  Periodically, each car sends out a signal indicating that it is still there.  When the driver unlocks the car, the sensor sends out a "goodbye" message and the network removes that car, and it drives away, researchers said.

If, however, a car leaves the network without issuing a goodbye message, the other cars will notice the absence of a "still here" message, researchers said. Once the system has confirmed that the car is gone, checking that other cars have not received the "still here" message, the monitoring sensor sends a signal identifying the car to the base unit in the parking lot, which will phone the owner to say the car is missing.  The system could be configured call the police as well, researchers said.

The researchers hope to be able to use existing wireless devices at intersections and roadsides, to track the sensors in the stolen car.  While these wireless nodes are not on every street, in areas where they are used to sense traffic patterns, stop light timing and other things, they can be used to track stolen cars, researchers said.  Because the sensors are small, they would be very difficult to locate and destroy, while conventional location equipment, such as various GPS. systems, can be identified and neutralized, researchers said.

"Our thought is that the apartment complex owner could provide the sensors with the parking stickers as an additional free perk," said Zhu. "All they need is the base unit, the car owner's phone number and the sensors in the car for the car should be safe in the lot."

During testing the system took four to nine seconds to detect the absence of the stolen vehicle.  This method requires that at least three nodes recognize that the stolen car has moved before sending an alert.  Because of this requirement, there are no false alarms.  The system works in a parking lot and can track stolen vehicles.According to Zhu, street parking is more difficult to deal with than parking lots, however, he said if apartment buildings along the street band together to provide sensors and base stations it might work as well.  Because of the trust problem, he does not see the sensors being incorporated into cars from the factory, because identifying who owns which car and sensor would be difficult.  Perhaps eventually, some government office like a state's department of transportation could provide the sensors and keep track of the vehicles, Zhu said.

The current system does have its limitations. The biggest one is caused by network partitions in a sparse parking lot. In the extreme case no neighbors can be found even if a sensor has tried its maximum power level, researchers said.  This is not a concern if the sensor can communicate with the base station directly. For a large parking space, this may not always hold. As the result, this vehicle cannot receive any protection. One possible solution is to deploy extra sensors inside the parking area securely (or invisibly), which can be used to monitor the parked vehicles and forward alert messages. However, the cost of such a system will be increased, researchers said.  There also could be privacy issues, but they will be addressed in future work, researchers added

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