Emerging Technologies That Will Change the World

Wireless Sensor Networks

Great Duck Island, a 90-hectare expanse of rock and grass off the coast of Maine, is home to one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of Leach’s storm petrels-and to one of the world’s most advanced experiments in wireless networking. Last summer, researchers bugged dozens of the petrels’ nesting burrows with small monitoring devices called motes. Each is about the size of its power source-a pair of AA batteries-and is equipped with a processor, a tiny amount of computer memory, and sensors that monitor light, humidity, pressure, and heat. There’s also a radio transceiver just powerful enough to broadcast snippets of data to nearby motes and pass on information received from other neighbors, bucket brigadestyle.

This is more than the latest in avian intelligence gathering. The motes preview a future pervaded by networks of wireless battery-powered sensors that monitor our environment, our machines, and even us . It’s a future that David Culler, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working toward for the last four years. “It’s one of the big opportunities” in information technology, says Culler. “Low-power wireless sensor networks are spearheading what the future of computing is going to look like.”

Culler is on partial leave from Berkeley to direct an Intel “lablet” that is perfecting the motes, as well as the hardware and software systems needed to clear the way for wireless networks made up of thousands or even millions of sensors. These networks will observe just about everything, including traffic, weather, seismic activity, the movements of troops on battlefields, and the stresses on buildings and bridges-all on a far finer scale than has been possible before.

Because such networks will be too distributed to have the sensors hard-wired into the electrical or communications grids, the lablet’s first challenge was to make its prototype motes communicate wirelessly with minimal battery power. “The devices have to organize themselves in a network by listening to one another and figuring out who can they hear…but it costs power to even listen,” says Culler. That meant finding a way to leave the motes’ radios off most of the time and still allow data to hop through the network, mote by mote, in much the same way that data on the Internet are broken into packets and routed from node to node.

Until Culler’s group attacked the problem, wireless networking had lacked an equivalent to the data-handling protocols that make the Internet work. The lablet’s solution: TinyOS, a compact operating system only a few kilobytes in size, that handles such administrative tasks as encoding data packets for relay and turning on radios only when they’re needed. The motes that run TinyOS should cost a few dollars apiece when mass produced and are being field-tested in several locations from Maine to California, where Berkeley seismologists are using them to monitor earthquakes.

Anyone is free to download and tinker with TinyOS, so researchers outside of Berkeley and Intel can test wireless sensor networks in a range of environments without having to reinvent the underlying technology. Culler’s motes have been “a tremendously enabling platform,” says Deborah Estrin, director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at the University of California, Los Angeles. Estrin is rigging a nature reserve in the San Jacinto mountains with a dense array of wireless microclimate and imaging sensors.

Others are trying to make motes even smaller. A group led by Berkeley computer scientist Kristofer Pister is aiming for one cubic millimeter-the size of a few dust mites. At that scale, wireless sensors could permeate highway surfaces, building materials, fabrics, and perhaps even our bodies. The resulting data bonanza could vastly increase our understanding of our physical environment-and help us protect our own nests. – Wade Roush

Nano Solar Cells

The sun may be the only energy source big enough to wean us off fossil fuels. But harnessing its energy depends on silicon wafers that must be produced by the same exacting process used to make computer chips. The expense of the silicon wafers raises solar-power costs to as much as 10 times the price of fossil fuel generation-keeping it an energy source best suited for satellites and other niche applications.

Paul Alivisatos, a chemist at the University of California, Berkeley, has a better idea: he aims to use nanotechnology to produce a photovoltaic material that can be spread like plastic wrap or paint. Not only could the nano solar cell be integrated with other building materials, it also offers the promise of cheap production costs that could finally make solar power a widely used electricity alternative.

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