WSU researcher develops pervasive sensor network for next-generation Internet

April 10, 2009

DETROIT- A Wayne State University researcher received $127,874 from the National Science Foundation to develop the framework for a network that connects pervasive, embedded sensors that are highly diverse in function, with the ultimate goal of communicating information directly to the Internet.

The network sensors, which can be placed virtually anywhere, can detect light levels, temperature, biochemical agents, traffic conditions and many other facts, enabling a wide range of potential applications. The aim is to connect the sensors with each other and directly to the Internet, so that the information is instantly accessible from anywhere, anytime.

"One way to think about today's Internet is that it's a network connecting people. Sensor networks will go beyond that by incorporating the physical world into the Internet. We're calling this new era the ‘Internet of things,'" said Hongwei Zhang, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and resident of Troy, Mich.

"Much like personal computers and the Internet created a whole new paradigm and shifted our culture, embedded sensor networks are going to transform the way we do things."

Potential areas of application for sensor networks include smart power grids, where they could coordinate power generation, transmission and consumption; homeland security, where they could be used to detect biochemical agents and provide more thorough monitoring of U.S. borders; agriculture, where they could monitor soil humidity, temperature and chemistry; and health and environment monitoring, where they could be useful for anything from tracking water cleanliness to monitoring traffic conditions.

Zhang's devices are designed for not only sensing, but for controlling a wide range of variables. In manufacturing, they could provide preventive equipment maintenance. In sustainable energy systems, they could control energy demand from smart homes of the future, significantly reducing the amount of energy wasted on a daily basis in the U.S.

The sensor networks will be a part of the National Science Foundation's Global Environment for Network Innovations, or GENI, a computer network that will initially connect about 30 universities and research institutions, that is scheduled to be operational by early 2010.

Similar to how the current day Internet originally connected academic institutions in the early 1990s, GENI will connect researchers and serve as a virtual laboratory to build and test new technologies."The benefit of GENI stems from the argument that scientists need realistic environments to do experiments," Zhang said. "Just like physicists have their own special facilities for experimentation, GENI is intended to serve as a computing and networking infrastructure so that computer scientists can do their experiments."

The technologies that will be tested on GENI are intended to address the shortcomings of today's Internet, such as lack of security, lack of mobility and lack of support for integrating pervasive computing and networking devices. Once developed, the innovations that work well on GENI will be incorporated into the next-generation Internet.

"The Internet today has a lot of problems, which many people are working to address," Zhang said. "Because the Internet has so many important purposes, however, we don't want to make any changes to it before verifying that those changes work well. This is why GENI is so important - it provides an environment where revolutionary ideas can be cultivated into working technologies."

"Zhang's NSF GENI project will bring unique opportunities for our students to contribute to this important area of research and education," said Farshad Fotouhi, chair of computer science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "Through this project, WSU students will be able to access the national GENI infrastructure for hands-on class projects and real-world-problem driven research in wireless networks and sensor networks, as well as networked and distributed systems in general."

Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting, ranking in the top 50 in R & D expenditures of all public universities by the National Science Foundation. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world.