Measuring Our World with Wireless Sensor Networks

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I recently interviewed Seapahn Megerian, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Wisconsin, about wireless sensor networks for an upcoming feature for CertMag’s Systems & Networks community. He talked about some very intriguing possibilities for this new technology, including space exploration, as well as some potential drawbacks.


For those of you who don’t know what wireless sensor networks are and want a relatively simple explanation, think back to the movie “Twister.” Remember those metallic balls that Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton’s characters sent up into the tornado to measure dimensions like size and wind speed? Imagine those balls being shrunk to the size of marbles or even smaller, and you have a pretty good sense of how a wireless sensor network might look.


In fact, their diminutive size is one of their most appealing qualities, Megerian said. “Miniaturization is one of the stronger motivators for the advent of wireless sensor networks. Smaller, faster and lower power, which essentially mean cheaper, can have tremendous impacts on virtually any branch of computer engineering. Nanotechnology not only opens new door in terms of new sensor technologies, but also in terms of tiny actuators that when combined with sensors and computers can go a step beyond in just observing and learning. With actuators, we can actually do stuff!”


However, we have to be careful when using these technologies, because their presence may wind up changing the environment they’re intended to measure. “We must also be conscious of the environmental effects that placing such sensor nodes can have, especially in large quantities,” he said. “Given the current battery technologies, it is clear that we do not want them sprinkled everywhere and left as garbage when they exhaust their useful lifetimes. When you are sending hundreds of satellites into orbit, and leave them there as space dust, it doesn’t really matter. But throwing 100,000 sensor nodes from an airplane to monitor a habitat here on Earth can have very significant environmental repercussions down the line.”


“We must be careful to not become too entangled by complex technologies around us. Having a typical user in mind, I think it is crucial to make sure the wireless sensor networks we design integrate into the surroundings as seamlessly as possible. In other words, if I have a 100 sensor nodes in my house, I don’t want 100 blinking clocks that are always stuck at 12:00 a.m. (a pun to the old VCR days)!”

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