Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

15. Uncommon Sense

What: Wireless sensing

Who: Scientists William Kaiser, Greg Pottie, Kristofer Pister, David Culler, Deborah Estrin

Impact: Imagine if MySpace really was a space. It's coming, and wireless sensing technology will bring it to everyone, everywhere. Scientists, soldiers and citizens alike, using networks of robotic devices all working together and all equipped with an array of sensors using a concept Business Week named one of its "21 Ideas for the 21st Century." In the forest, robotic sensors already "sense" changes in temperature, humidity, light, the actions of animals and insects. In the near future, sensors surrounding a hospital will track patient movements and vital signs. Battlefield networks will track the enemy or sniff out chemical weapons. On city streets, "urban sensing" citizens with cell phones will share a traffic snarl, a mime on the street, a sudden shower downtown. The first integrated wireless sensors were developed in the mid-'90s by two UCLA scientists, Electrical Engineering Professor William Kaiser and Greg Pottie, now associate dean of research and physical resources in the Electrical Engineering Department (Kaiser called the program, dubbed Wireless Integrated Networks Sensors, or WINS, a "global digital nervous system"). Later in the decade, a research agenda for network and software architectures for distributed sensing was developed by Deborah Estrin, now director of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA (one of six interdisciplinary National Science Foundation and Technology Centers formed in 2002 that include hundreds of scientists and researchers, including faculty at UCLA, UC Riverside, UC Merced, CSULA and USC, among others). The work of Estrin and her band of "Eco-geeks" led to the National Research Council's "Embedded Everywhere" study. In 2001, UC Berkeley Professor Kristofer Pister introduced the concept of "smartdust," sensor devices the size of a particle of dust, and Berkeley Computer Science Professor David Culler developed TinyOS, a software environment for Pister's "motes" that enabled a community of development.

Eureka moment: As with many scientific breakthroughs, the military made them do it. Kaiser and Pottie's research was first conducted under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program, when they realized that environmental monitoring was, as Estrin describes it, "this generation's killer app to drive the development of wireless sensing technology and practice."

— Jack Feuer