Wireless Sensing Networks: an Overview of US development

December 2005

Teresa Dillon, Futurelab 

Each year the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) runs a series of ‘Global Watch Missions’. The Missions are visits by small groups of experts, usually drawn from industry and academia, to leading-edge technology organisations around the world.

According to the Global Watch website, missions offer ‘direct access to the people, technologies and strategies that are driving progress overseas in the sectors of’:

Information Technology, Electronics and Communications (ITEC)
Life Sciences (LS)
Performance Engineering and Materials (PEM)
Environmental and Sustainable Energy Technologies (ESET)

The goal of a Mission is to improve UK competitiveness by identifying and accessing innovative technologies and practices from overseas. This is achieved by scouting out international leaders and discussing with them the factors which lead to their successes and achievements. The findings of each Mission are then summarised in a report, which is disseminated to relevant UK practitioners at a specially organised seminar event.

In November this year, Futurelab was invited to participate in the Wireless Sensing Network (WSN) Mission to the US, in particular to California. On the Mission, UK delegates included members from the defence, telecoms, manufacturing, academia, education and creative sectors.

The key aims of the mission were:

To identify and understand the technical, commercial, funding and market challenges addressed during developmental projects in WSN in the USA.
To focus on specific technical areas and identify best practices.
To focus on the challenges required to translate innovations and prototypes into commercial products fit for the marketplace and for successful exploitation.

This article summarises our main findings, focusing in particular on the key features which played a role in the development of WSN technology within the US.

What are Wireless Sensing Networks?

For those new to the area, a WSN is a network of wireless, distributed sensing devices, with a tiered computing architecture. WSN devices are typically low-powered radio devices with sensing and communication capabilities. The sensing devices used in WSN tend to be very small computers that include a battery, radio communicators, microcontroller and, depending on the application, the relevant sensor (eg temperature, pressure etc). The sensors form nodes or micro electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), which generally can self-organise and communicate with each other.

WSN represent what has been referred to as the ‘third paradigm’ of computing, where technology is seamlessly and invisibly embedded within our environments, thus it becomes ubiquitous and pervasive.

Application areas

Currently, within the US, the industries which are deploying WSN include the defence, engineering and environmental sectors. In these areas WSN have been used, for example, to monitor, wildlife habitats, high-risk environments and buildings’ energy consumption and conservation. For example, think of buildings covered with small, near-invisible networked computers, which continually monitor the temperature of the building and modify it in relation to the amount of people in the building, thus saving energy. Or sensors buried in the ground, monitoring areas prone to earthquakes and landslides and providing vital feedback, which could prevent human loss and mass destruction.

Interestingly it is in the hands of the consumer where developers think the real boom will happen. They predict that once WSN become more widespread, new applications not yet thought of will emerge. For example, one area which is already showing such signs is health monitoring. Emerging developments in this area are providing the means for people to increase their level of care and independence with specific applications in heart monitoring and retirement care.

Key factors

Since the first WSN in the mid-70s the military and defence industries have played an important role in their ongoing development. For example, the first successful use of WSN was during the Vietnam War, where they were used to support the detection of rebel groups in remote jungle areas. Although this field trial demonstrated WSN potential, these early sensors were large, required a lot of energy and had limited network capability.

It was during the 90s that US thinktanks such as the Rand Corporation began to reignite interest in WSN. As a result the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began to significantly invest in the area.

Since then, within California, WSN has benefited from provocative state-industry funding schemes; venture capitalists and equity support. Such funding has driven innovation within sensor and network development, with standards emerging which have allowed for greater flexibility and compatibility. Key developments include the deployment of smaller sensors (eg Smart Dust), along with other WSN priorities such as network and system reliability. Within recent years, communications standards such as Zigbee and the programming languages, such as TinyOS, been also been established.

Across the universities, institutions and companies visited during the Mission, continual emphasis was placed on cross-disciplinary collaboration; open source policies for early prototyping and research development; industry partnership and mixed mode funding strategies, where interdisciplinary collaboration is highly rewarded. These aspects were considered as highly influential and key to the success of WSN. Another important influence has been the use of compelling live demonstrations, where the potential of WSN has been clearly demonstrated to investors. Key examples include the Cory Hall energy monitoring demonstration at Berkley; the Great Duck Island habitat monitoring application; and Masada, tourist and ancient building conservation projects.

Although the elusive ‘killer’ application has yet to be found, it is clear from US, UK and international developments that WSN is a key growth area. Opportunities in building and environmental monitoring are predicted to increase, with wellbeing and health monitoring considered a particularly interesting area for the UK to develop.

Current situation and relevance to learning

In relation to learning and education, WSN has links to many of the key projects that Futurelab has been developed over the last two years. Projects such as Savannah (the virtual mobile game), Mudlarking (the augmented reality tour guide) and forthcoming developments such as Fizzies (a sensing device for supporting young children to adopt a healthier lifestyle) all tap into the possibilities of WSN for learning. Although we have yet to develop a particular WSN application, we are currently in the process of scoping out such a project for use in museum contexts.

In this respect, we consider that WSN are necessary and relevant devices, which will play a central role in the development of pervasive computing environments over the next 10 to 20 years. Given the increased emphasis on personalised and ‘anytime, anywhere’ learning, WSN opens the door for social and pleasurable learning opportunities.

However, in developing such experiences we need to carefully consider the implications of tracking and collecting personalised data from young people. In increasingly networked worlds, the ethical and social implications of our technological developments are often not fully discussed. We have to respect the importance of private spaces, particularly in the development of young people. As pervasive computing develops, public dissemination and access to information, through which people can develop an informed understanding of WSN, is essential.

WSN UK participants

Professor Graham Peggs, Senior NPL Fellow in Dimensional and Optical Metrology
Paul Garner, Head of Pervasive ICT Centre, BT Research
Dr DK Arvind, Director of the Institute for Computing Systems Architecture, University of Edinburgh
George Matich, Chief Technology Officer, SELEX Sensors & Airborne Systems Limited
Dr John Gilby, Chief scientist and Head of Research, Sira
Dr Alison Burnet, Head of Marketing, Toumaz
Matt Adams, Blast Theory
Teresa Dillon, Innovations Researcher, Futurelab

Links to interesting projects

Cory Hall: Building monitoring/energy saving application (2001)
Professor Kris Pister (co-founder Dust) and his team at Berkeley Sensor Actuator Centre: www-bsac.eecs.berkeley.edu/archive/complete_publist.html. Retrieved 11 November 2005.

The Great Duck Island: Habitat monitoring/biological conservation application (2002)
Professor David Culler and his team at the Computer Science Division, UC Berkeley and Intel Research Lab: www.greatduckisland.net.

Masada: Historical sites/tourism conservation application (current)
Professor Steve Glaser, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UC Berkeley: www.ce.berkeley.edu/~glaser/ and www.bgu.ac.il/geol/rockmech/masada/masada.html. Retrieved 11 November 2005.

Related Futurelab projects

Mudlarking in Deptford

Companies and institutions visited

Multinational research labs:

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory: www.llnl.gov
Intel: www.intel.com/research/exploratory/motes.htm
PARC: www2.parc.com/spl/projects/ecca and http://www.parc.com/
Sun Microsystems: research.sun.com/spotlight/SunSPOTSJune30.pdf


University of California, Los Angles, (UCLA), Centre for Embedded Technology (CENS): http://cens.ucla.edu/
California Institution for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2): http://www.calit2.net/
Berkeley Wireless Research Centre: http://bwrc.eecs.berkeley.edu/
Centre for Information Technology research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), Berkeley: http://citris-uc.org/

Manufactures and solution providers:

Dust: www.dustnetworks.com/flash-index.shtml
Crossbow: www.xbow.com
Figure 8: www.figure8wireless.com
SYS Technologies: www.systechnologies.com
Scalable Networks: www.scalablenetworks.co.uk
Cardionet: www.cardionet.com

Note:  Web resources developed by Futurelab prior to 2011 used to be hosted by NFER, UK but were decommissioned, hence this is a reproduction from the archive.