Researchers Receive NSF Grant to Develop Sensor Networks that Talk and Think

AMHERST, Mass. - With virtually every segment of modern life, from healthcare and manufacturing to homeland security, relying increasingly on remote sensing technology, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are working to create a new generation of intelligent and networked sensors that can communicate with each other and use the shared data to make decisions.

Professors Robert Gao and Abhi Deshmukh, of mechanical and industrial engineering, Professor Weibo Gong, of electrical and computer engineering, and four faculty at Boston University’s Center for Information Systems and Engineering have been awarded a $2.47-million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a self-contained sensor network that can adapt to its environment based on the data it gathers. UMass will receive about $1.1 million of the award.

According to Deshmukh, the interdisciplinary team is taking a bold course by simultaneously developing the hardware for the sensors and creating the network for the devices to communicate and reach decisions about the health of the system.

The team’s initial efforts will focus on developing a manufacturing model to demonstrate the sensor technology. Gao says a low-power sensor network will monitor the condition of the machinery. But the potential uses for “smart” sensor networks go well beyond the factory floor, according to the researchers.

“There are applications for this technology in almost every area of society, such as manufacturing, intelligent transportation systems, weather and radar surveillance, and detecting biochemical agents,” says Deshmukh. “Almost any future system will need an integrated sensor system.”

Gong agrees, noting that “wireless sensor networks need new algorithms and analysis methods for large, complex engineering systems and pose challenges to fundamental research. We are very excited to work on these issues.”

By linking the various sensors into a communication grid, says Gao, the network will be able to compensate for faulty readings or poor quality information coming from individual devices.

Gao also will be concentrating on building an energy-efficient sensor that can extend its battery life by self-regulating its operational and communication activities. “People want to put sensors everywhere, but they’re not much good if you have to change the batteries every week,” he says.

The BU team, led by former UMass Amherst faculty member Christos G. Cassandras, will work on various network control issues and experimentally link several laptop computers with small robots outfitted with sensors to create a localized sensor network. The other BU researchers are David A. Casta?on, Ionannis Paschalidis, and John Baillieul.

Robert Gao can be reached at 413/545-0868, or gao@ecs.umass.edu.

Abhi Deshmukh can be reached at 413/545-1615 or deshmukh@ecs.umass.edu.

Weibo Gong can be reached at 413/545-0384 or gong@ecs.umass.edu.