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Plotting the road ahead for wireless sensor networks


Wireless sensor networks consisting of multiple objects, each capable of simple sensing, actuation, communication and processing have tremendous potential. To better realise their full capabilities researchers are developing a broad vision of innovative future applications.

Wireless sensor networks are a typical example of a network of ‘cooperating objects’, tiny embedded computers that cooperate together to produce an intended result. Such embedded systems, be they tiny processors in ‘intelligent clothing’ or the increasing numbers of computers in automobiles, are characterised by their need to interact with their immediate surroundings. However, it is only by cooperation with other objects that the full capabilities of such networks can be reached.

The problem faced by system designers is that, with so many cooperation possibilities with other networks, intelligent objects or even users themselves, how are they to know the best research direction to take? Which possibilities are likely to be taken up by society and industry globally, and which will turn out to be a blind alley?

These are the questions that the IST project Embedded WiseNts aims to answer. The project has brought together twelve partners from ten different European countries, the top research institutions in wireless communication, distributed computing and cooperating objects, to come up with some answers.

The project partners are focusing on the development of Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN) and their applications, especially in the form of Cooperating Objects (CO), to help develop a roadmap for innovative future applications. Their objective is to gain a broad vision of embedded wireless networks in the future (+/- 10 years), what their requirements would be and what technical progress is needed to this end.

What specific areas of weakness have the team found? “One of the first things we noticed is that most applications out there at the moment are very application specific,” says Marrón. “Which means that one key area we must address is that of adaptation. There is a distinct need for a middleware layer to cope with the diversity of software layers.”

“We have a big issue in energy-aware software, for example,” he continues. “When you have lots of small cooperating objects everywhere, you cannot keep stopping to change the batteries. So we need better energy efficiency both in hardware and software, and that can be either better batteries or algorithms that are more power-aware, that can turn off the radio module in the software, say, when it is not in use. As this will affect many software layers, we need to have cross-layer information.”

While systems designers are working on areas like energy-efficient hardware and software algorithms right now, Marrón believes that these issues and others even more important, such as security and authentication, will remain important issues for the next ten years.

Embedded WiseNts ends in December 2006. The project’s findings are already feeding into other research areas associated with cooperating objects. One example is a new project which is examining the possibilities for using cooperating objects in combination with robotics.

“The promise of cooperating objects in robotics is very big,” says Marrón. “[We] will be looking at how to develop a sensor system for the robots being introduced in fire fighting, as well as for the support of tiny autonomous flying objects known as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs.”

Tara Morris | alfa
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