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Saturday, 8 December, 2001, 08:31 GMT
Visions of a smart future
Dr Zhao
Dr Zhao: Sees many potential uses for sensors
By BBC Click Online's Richard Taylor

Researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in Silicon Valley, US, are working to develop cheap, smart sensors, which would be able to wirelessly connect to each other.

For the past three years senior researcher Feng Zhao has been leading a project called collaborative sensing.

"I think 'sensornet' technology is a key element in the post-internet revolution," said Dr Zhao.

"The key challenge here really is to instrument our physical world with all these tiny, dirt-cheap sensors wirelessly connected."

Sensors everywhere

If you consider our present-day environment, we are already surrounded by sensors.

These sensors can detect a lot of interesting things so that the impact we're going to see is to have the world around us instrumented with all these sensors so that this information could help us to live a better life

Dr Feng Zhao, Parc
Devices range from the most basic thermostats, to sensors in cars which monitor everything from fuel consumption to vibrations.

All of these are useful in capturing physical information about their immediate space. But they can only tell us so much.

"Most of these sensors are 'dumb' sensors," said Dr Zhao.

"They don't really have onboard processing, don't network with each other. Sensors coming round the corner are smart sensors."

The sensors at the heart of Dr Zhao's work are devices, costing just a few pennies each, which are able to wirelessly connect to similar sensors in their environment, in a so-called sensor network.

They also contain a computer chip to process incoming information.

"These sensors, once they're connected, can detect a lot of interesting things so that the impact we're going to see is to have the world around us instrumented with all these sensors so that this information could help us to live a better life."

Possible uses

The potential applications are wide-ranging. Sensors on roads could make travel safer and highways less congested by noting accidents, potholes and alternate routes.

Aim to build small and cheap sensors
It could then relay the information to your car's global positioning system.

The sheer volume of information able to be collected means a more powerful ability to make predictions, even on a seemingly mundane level. Frustration when household appliances or electronic gadgets break down could soon be a thing of the past.

"Another area we've been looking at is manufacturing and equipment services," said Dr Zhao.

"It's a huge area. For example your washing machine in your house might sound a little bizarre - a vibration sensor might be able to pick up the sound and signal a repair service to bring the parts to your house before the machine breaks down."

Some of the settings to incorporate this new technology are already taking shape, in so-called smart houses.

But it will be some time before the networked vision of collaborating sensors actually takes shape.

"My prediction is that 5-10 years from now the sensors will be ubiquitous, we can expect sensors in refrigerators, microwaves, garden fences, tyres in your cars. That's the sensor-rich world that I'm predicting," said Dr Zhao.

See also:

11 Nov 99 | Health
Medics peer into the future
26 Mar 01 | dot life
Car crash data is in the bag
11 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Tyres tell tales
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