Wireless Sensor Networks - Top 10 Emerging Technologies 2003

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FEBRUARY 2003

10 EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
THAT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD
w w w. t e c h n o l o g y r e v i e w. c o m TECHNOLOGY REVIEW February 2003

In labs around the world, researchers are busy creating technologies that will change the way we conduct business and live our lives. These are not the latest crop of gadgets and gizmos: they are completely new technologies that could soon transform computing, medicine, manufacturing, transportation, and our energy infrastructure. Nurturing the people and the culture needed to make the birth of such technological ideas possible is a messy endeavor, as MIT Media Lab cofounder Nicholas Negroponte explains on page 34. But in this special issue, Technology Review’s editors have identified 10 emerging technologies that we predict will have a tremendous influence in the near future. For each, we’ve chosen a researcher or research team whose work and vision is driving the field. The profiles, which begin on page 36, offer a sneak preview of the technology world in the years and decades to come.

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Mote maker: David Culler’s “motes” monitor the environment and send reports wirelessly. PHOTOGRAPH BY ANGELA WYANT

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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW

February 2003

w w w. t e c h n o l o g y r e v i e w. c o m

DAVID CULLER

Wireless Sensor Networks
Great Duck Island, a 90-hectare expanse of

rock and grass off the coast of Maine, is home to one of the world’s largest breeding colonies of Leach’s storm petrels— and to one of the world’s most advanced experiments in wireless networking. Last summer, researchers bugged dozens of the petrels’ nesting burrows with small monitoring devices called motes. Each is about the size of its power source—a pair of AA batteries—and is equipped with a processor, a tiny amount of computer memory, and sensors that monitor light, humidity, pressure, and heat. There’s also a radio transceiver just powerful enough to broadcast snippets of data to nearby motes and pass on information received from other neighbors, bucket brigade–style. This is more than the latest in avian intelligence gathering. The motes preview a future pervaded by networks of wireless battery-powered sensors that monitor our environment, our machines, and even us. It’s a future that David Culler, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, has been working toward for the last four years. “It’s one of the big opportunities” in information technology, says Culler. “Low-power wireless sensor networks are spearheading what the future of computing is going to look like.” Culler is on partial leave from Berkeley to direct an Intel “lablet” that is perfecting the motes, as well as the hardware and software systems needed to clear the way for wireless networks made up of thousands or even millions of sensors. These networks will observe just about everything, including traffic, weather, seismic activity, the movements of troops on battlefields, and the stresses on buildings and bridges—all on a far finer scale than has been possible before. Because such networks will be too distributed to have the sensors hard-wired into the electrical or communications grids, the lablet’s first challenge was to make its prototype motes communicate wirelessly with minimal battery power. “The devices have to organize themselves in a network by listening to one another and figuring out who can they hear...but w w w. t e c h n o l o g y r e v i e w. c o m

it costs power to even listen,” says Culler. That meant finding a way to leave the motes’ radios off most of the time and still allow data to hop through the network, mote by mote, in much the same way that data on the Internet are broken into packets and routed from node to node. Until Culler’s group attacked the problem, wireless networking had lacked an equivalent to the data-handling protocols that make the Internet work. The lablet’s solution: TinyOS, a compact operating system only a few kilobytes in size, that handles such...
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