By Tonya Suther
NSF INSPIRE award boosts NMSU collaboration for wireless sensor networks
Imagine a $30 device smaller than a quarter that can wirelessly monitor your family pet, transmitting data to GPS receivers so you can instantly know what’s up with Fido or Fluffy. The same tiny, wireless technology could be deployed to track endangered species and monitor their vital statistics, measure aquifer water levels or monitor home security.
New Mexico State University researchers aren’t there yet, but a prototype of such a device is already monitoring fish swimming about in an aquarium. Electrodes, connected to the device, and placed near the fish, measure their electrical discharges before wirelessly uploading the data to a server for analysis by the scientists.
“Right now, the only way to monitor the fish is by taking it out of the water and measuring the electric discharge, which can traumatize the fish and potentially result in incorrect readings,” says Satyajayant Misra, an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at New Mexico State University. “If we can design a wireless device that’s small, inexpensive, can be attached non-invasively to the fish, and monitors this information from the fish and sends it wirelessly, not only will the animal not be traumatized by this experience, but we might be able to deploy these devices on a much wider scale.”
Deploying wireless sensor networks for ubiquitous use is the goal of a major collaboration at NMSU involving the departments of computer science, electrical and computer engineering and biology.
Misra, principal investigator for the project, is the recipient of NMSU’s first INSPIRE award from the National Science Foundation. He will receive $800,000 over the next five years to develop small customizable wireless network sensors for experimental biology research while working to make them affordable for everyday use.
INSPIRE, short for Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education, is a new initiative aimed at encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations that will create transformative research in the involved fields.
This interdisciplinary project will immediately benefit researchers who monitor animals, but down the road, the devices could benefit the general public.
“We haven’t yet permeated the space of uses of these wireless devices, because they’re expensive and hard to use,” Misra says. “The moment they become inexpensive and easy to use, people will come up with many use cases, not only of course in ecology and biology, but drug research, agriculture and everywhere.”
Collaborating with Misra on the project are Hong Huang, an associate professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NMSU, and Graciela Unguez, a professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.
They have a five-step plan for the project. With the grant, they will hire graduate students who will help design both the wireless sensor devices and the software. Then, they’ll work to create the framework that binds the device and the software before deploying them in an NMSU biology lab where scientists will study the data.
Misra and collaborators are aiming for wireless sensor devices that are small, inexpensive, customizable and easily programmable.
“Our target point is a $30 device,” Misra says. “It’s open source, so you can download the software for free. If you want to design the hardware yourself, you can download the blueprints, customize it, and use our software framework to program it.”
The sensor prototype is currently just a bit smaller than a hockey puck. The researchers plan to reduce it to a device that is 1 inch by 1/2 inch early next year. Their target device is a much smaller, with dimensions of 2 millimeters by 4 millimeters by 2.5 millimeters – roughly a 10th of an inch on each side.
“We are trying to do something that is fairly novel with miniaturization,” Misra says. “There are only four or five places in the world that are doing it. The challenges are vast, but the implications are phenomenal.”
In the aquarium experiment, Misra says, users have the option to choose customized applications such as measuring the fish’s electric organ discharge or reading the aquarium’s water temperature. “So you can just drag and drop these sensors and the applications you require.”
Huang, whose research interests include wireless, sensor and optical networks, will work with Misra to study the communication network consisting of several fishes fitted with their miniature sensor device. Together, they will identify where to place the wireless devices on the fish and the access points that gather the data from the fishes in the network, and the wireless communication issues underwater.
“For example, if I wanted to measure every single fish and find their vital statistics at two-minute intervals, then I need to place these access points in different places in the network in a certain way,” Misra explains. “These are interesting problems that are very specific to the applications scenario.”
Unguez will use the sensors in her lab to study the fish’s electrical discharge. Unguez researches the mechanisms responsible for the formation and maintenance of electrically excitable cells, like neurons and muscle cells. She also studies regeneration using electric fish after their tails have been amputated.
“There are many things we can study,” Misra says. “If we sever its spine, when does the spine heal? How does the electric discharge change as the spine is healing? What happens to the electrical discharge when there are two, or three, or more fishes in a given region? These kinds of questions are only scratching the surface of what we’re going to look at.”
One of the first uses of wireless sensor networks to monitor animals dates back 10 years when scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, in collaboration with College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, deployed sensors to monitor the roosting patterns of migratory birds on Duck Island, Maine.
Since then, such sensors have been deployed in niche environments such as border security and the military.
“There is a whole bevy of applications out there that are not niche,” Misra says. “The same sensor that we use for monitoring a biological experiment with electric fish in the lab can be used at your home to monitor the energy usage in your home. And it can be done very cheaply.”
Using the prototype, the team has already begun to gather data from the fish. The actual sensors have not been placed on the fish due to the device’s size, however. Instead, researchers are currently using electrodes, which tend to disorientate the fish.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t come up with the technology where we can plant these sensors on their body,” Misra says. “Not implanted, but just stuck on, like a Band-Aid.” That miniaturization will be one of the goals of their research.
Soon, they plan to deploy the sensor on the aquarium itself to monitor changes in water temperature and pH value. The sensor will then communicate with the base station, sending messages to researchers’ smart phones, alerting them to changes in conditions as the fish swim about in the aquarium.