April 1, 2006 Fleets of robotic sensors, networking through thin cables, can track environmental changes such as biogeochemical cycles or loss of biodiversity, helping to manage wild lands. The technology is the basis for a $500 million project called National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which will monitor areas across the country.
LOS ANGELES--More than 80 percent of the earth's natural forests have been destroyed, and research shows 45 percent of lakes are too polluted to be safe for drinking, fishing or even swimming. We all know our environment is changing, but there's still a lot to learn. With new technology, we may soon have a clearer picture of exactly what's happening.
Buried deep within some of our nation's most pristine wilderness is some of the most innovative technology electrical engineers have ever developed.
William Kaiser, an electrical engineer at UCLA School of Engineering in Los Angeles, says, "It is important to use this technology really for both understanding how humans impact the environment and, of course, how the environment can impact public health." That technology is a fleet of robotic sensors like these that monitor environmental changes.
"The observation of environmental change is very important in determining how the stress we place on the environment affects the environment," Kaiser says.
Connected to thin cables, these high-tech tree-bots navigate forests all on their own to record what's happening. When they sense something important is happening, they move to collect the data.
The sensors can track plants, water, even insects. Ecologist Phil Rundel, a professor at UCLA School of Engineering, says this will transform his field. "I think people want to know about their environment. They want to know their environment is healthy and what aspects of change in their environment might be affecting them."
Kaiser says, "What this means is a better way to manage resources like the wild lands around the country and, effectively, to preserve our environment in the most intelligent way."
There are several national projects underway to spread this kind of environmental technology from coast to coast. Leading the charge is a project called National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON. Scheduled to start in 2007, NEON will include 15 circular areas, 250 miles in diameter spread across the country to measure everything from urban terrain, to agricultural and wild lands. The plans for the $500-million project are still evolving.
BACKGROUND: The rapid miniaturization of technologies behind cameras, cell phones, and wireless computers is allowing scientists to build networks of small sensors that could lead to a new era of ecological insight. For example, UCLA researchers have connected 100 tiny sensors, robots, cameras and computers to monitor the weather and environment. Devices the size of a deck of cards (known as motes, after dust motes) can measure light, wind speed, rainfall, temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure, detecting the presence of a warm body or tracking the progress of a cold wind up a canyon.
HOW IT WORKS: Motes are also known as smart dust or wireless sensing networks. Motes have custom-designed computer chips and sensors that can measure things like temperature, light, sound, position, motion, vibration, stress, weight, pressure or humidity. The computer connects to the outside world via a radio link, so the mote can transmit the data it collects. They are wireless and powered by batteries or (if they are small enough) by solar cells. This means they can be used in remote places. A mote the size of a cell phone can work for five years and transmit up to 325 feet away. The various nodes of a network automatically look for neighboring nodes, and can compensate if a few of them fail.
APPLICATIONS: Environmental sensor networks can help fill an observational gap between microscopes and telescopes. Scientists envision networks of motes being deployed over rain forests or wildlife reserves, or monitoring the water supply in California, for example. Wireless motes, cameras and other sensors deployed in California's James Reserve track the nesting habits of birds, and the life cycles of moss. Robots move along wires strung from tree to tree, lowering sensors to take temperature, humidity and light level readings at different altitudes. Motes could be embedded in concrete bridges to monitor structural integrity, or to machinery to monitor wear and tear before it becomes a problem. Motes attached to water or power meters could log power and water consumption for customers. The military envisions one day using networks of motes to sense and monitor battlefield conditions.