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UCLA Magazine Winter 2003
The Rising
Honorable Intentions
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The Littlest Bruin
Sensing the Future
Dershowitz, For the Defense
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Winter 2003
Sensing the Future
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Sensing the Future illustration

A new generation of wireless-sensing technology being developed at UCLA promises to connect the physical world in the same way that the Internet has linked the virtual world

By Dan Gordon '85
Illustration by Mark Danielson

Thirty-four years ago in a small office in Boelter Hall, a refrigerator-sized Honeywell Interface Message Processor was set up 20 feet away from an equally clunky Scientific Data Systems Sigma-7. There, a team of UCLA computer scientists connected the very first node of what would later be called the Internet.

Today, the catalysts for a new kind of Internet — one that promises to connect the physical world just as its predecessor has linked the virtual world — are considerably smaller than those earlier Goliaths. They are barely visible microprocessors connected to cameras, microphones, motion detectors and other sensors, densely distributed within a natural or man-made environment to monitor and collect information with unprecedented resolution, and in some cases activate a response.

The architects behind the wireless-sensor networks of the not-so-distant future envision "smart" buildings that sense and adjust their bearings to ride out earthquakes, microscopic devices that monitor the health of medical patients outside the hospital and systems that alert farmers to soil contaminants or government authorities to possible bioterrorist acts, to name a few.

Once again, UCLA is the focal point of a national effort to develop and conduct initial experiments with a revolutionary new information technology. The university is the lead institution for the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) — one of 11 Science and Technology Centers established nationwide by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The ambitious effort is being undertaken by a multidisciplinary research team at UCLA — headquartered at the Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science but fanning out across the campus — together with colleagues at partner institutions USC, UC Riverside, Caltech, UC Merced, Cal State Los Angeles and Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NSF provided $40 million over 10 years for the center, and an additional $12 million has come directly from UCLA and its partner institutions.

"This area is red hot — it could change the way we do a lot of science," says John Cozzens, an NSF program manager who serves as technical coordinator for CENS.

The combination of small, low-power, autonomous sensors with wireless communication and computation capabilities — pioneered a decade ago by UCLA researchers William Kaiser and Greg Pottie — paved the way for embedded networked systems. "What's so powerful is that you can take these sensors, distribute them in the environment and sense phenomena up close, even in the presence of obstacles, in ways that would be impossible with remote sensing," explains Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science and founding director of CENS.

CENS researchers also are beginning to work on the next-generation technology — aerial robotic sensors, suspended along steel cables attached to buildings, trees or other natural or man-made structures and capable of monitoring vast, three-dimensional spaces. Networked infomechanical systems (NIMS), being developed by a CENS research team headed by Kaiser, a professor of electrical engineering, under a $7.5-million NSF grant, bring new advantages that include the ability to relocate, when triggered to do so, to where interesting phenomena are occurring; to collect environmental samples; and to dock when necessary to recharge their energy source — a feature that directly tackles a major constraint in wireless-sensor networks, where efficient energy use is critical.

Last summer, Kaiser's team completed a test installation at the Wind River Canopy Crane Research Facility in Washington. With the new grant, the NIMS researchers will deploy a test bed at the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve, part of the UC Natural Reserve System, to collect dense environmental and ecological data about populations of rare species and their habitats within a mountain-stream ecosystem and the surrounding conifer forests and meadows.

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