Embedded Networks: UCLA
Her mini-networks track the forest and the trees—plus every leaf, bug, bird & dewdrop.
Deborah Estrin knows that when a tree falls in the forest, it always makes a sound. And by seeding the woods with miniature monitoring devices, she plans to make sure it will be heard. The director of a new $40 million UCLA research center for embedded networked sensing (ENS), Estrin, 43, wants to connect us to the physical world as intimately as the Internet connects us to one another. She envisions a future in which our surroundings will constantly take their own measure and report back. Bridges with sensors in their foundations will monitor their own structural health and detect the first tremors of an earthquake. Smart bandages will assess a patient's medical condition. Dairy or wine manufacturers will be able to track the location and condition (including temperature) of shipments (see "The Mote Invasion").
The building blocks of ENS are microprocessors the size of Matchbox cars that can be connected to a range of sensing devices—infrared cameras, acoustic and chemical sensors, motion detectors. The resultant devices are then scattered over a broad area to monitor the subtlest of changes. Data leapfrogs between processors, then streams to a central server. The biggest challenge for Estrin, a computer scientist, is managing the flood of information these networks will produce. She is devising algorithms that will enable the microprocessors to compress data, or to eliminate duplications before information is transmitted. She is also creating programs that will ensure data is transmitted only when it falls outside an established range—when, say, a leaf is wetter or the air warmer than expected. Other of her programs would restrict the very collection of data to times when it varies from the norm.
Estrin was already investigating ENS for security and other applications when in 1999 she vacationed in Costa Rica. The rain forest was so dense with life, she mused, it would be logistically impossible for biologists to track it all—but embedded sensors could. Last month, her center launched its first big ecosystem study—100 devices spread over 30 wooded acres near Palm Springs, California. Video cameras will watch bluebird nests, motion detectors will sense predators, and buried CO2 probes will monitor soil chemistry. The data will be broadcast on the Internet: www.jamesreserve.edu.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.