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UCLA Magazine Winter 2003
The Rising
Honorable Intentions
The Cardinal of Westwood
The Littlest Bruin
Sensing the Future
Dershowitz, For the Defense
Bruin Walk

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Winter 2003
Sensing the Future
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Kaiser and Pottie were developing some of the first sensor-node networks in the mid-1990s when they met Estrin, who infused their work with a new information-technology vision: that of larger-scale distributed systems, self-configuring and capable of adaptive in-network processing. Estrin, the daughter of two UCLA computer science professors, was at the time a member of the computer science faculty at USC, working on Internet routing protocols. With the growing commercialization of the Internet, she was becoming concerned about the decreasing likelihood that the problems she was tackling would actually be applied to Internet technology. "I have great respect for theoreticians, but I need to know that what I'm doing will eventually be usable," she says.

Seeing the wide-ranging and far-reaching applicability of wireless-sensing network technology, Estrin not only began to tackle the research challenges, but also became a leader in promoting the field. Last September, Popular Science magazine named her to its annual "Brilliant 10" list of young scientists doing extraordinary work. Estrin hopes the clear connection between development of the emerging technology and the ability to address global concerns will similarly engage a wider range of talented students, helping to attract more diversity to the engineering field. With that as a goal, CENS has focused on including undergraduates in its experimental research; 23 of them accompanied Kaiser to Washington for the NIMS test installation last summer.

Estrin believes key strategies that contributed to Internet architecture are relevant to the new endeavor, including the focus on building relatively simple systems that can be expanded and can readily proliferate over a variety of settings with time. While CENS researchers such as Pottie address fundamental theoretical questions designed to test the limits of wireless-sensor networks, most of the focus is on experimental work, with the technologists and scientists working in close collaboration to hone the systems. "By concentrating on scientific applications at this early stage, we can explore the base technology and make much better progress more quickly," Estrin says.

Initially, CENS is focusing on four applications. At the James Reserve near Palm Springs, researchers created a sensor network of cameras and motion detectors across 30 acres of wilderness to continuously monitor and characterize everything from microclimate dynamics to bird-nesting behaviors. A second group is using embedded systems to track the flow of contaminants in soil. A third CENS team employs the technology in an effort to understand and ultimately predict the conditions under which specific populations of marine microorganisms develop. And at the 17-story Factor Building on the UCLA campus, still another research group is installing a spatially dense network of seismic sensors to afford an unparalleled opportunity to learn about how buildings respond during an earthquake.

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