University pursues self-powered wireless networks

University pursues self-powered wireless networks

Project to look into the feasibility of building large-scale self-powered wireless networks.

Imagine a network of wireless sensors scattered across thousands of hectares of forest watching for signs of dry conditions that could set off fires.

Or spread across a border watching for intruders. Or in a building sniffing for biohazards.

A project to look into the feasibility of building such large-scale self-powered wireless networks has been given a boost with a CDN$3 million grant last week from the Ontario government to a University of Toronto team.

Headed by Dr. Dimitrios Hatzinakos of the university's department of electrical and computer engineering, the team is partnering with Motorola in a five-year quest to create sensor hardware, software and a power system in a network that can run by itself yet span great distances.

The five-year project has an estimated cost of just over CDN$9 million, although much of that will be contributed by Motorola and the university in services. The Canadian federal government is also contributing CDN$3 million.

Hatzinakos said the system has many challenges. It needs a wireless system that's scalable enough to cover a large area yet easily software upgradable; an efficient power system; and, if sensitive personal or corporate information is gathered, a way to ensure security of any data transmitted.

It's a project that excites Dan Gamota director of printed electronics, physical and digital realization research at Motorola Labs, who is the company's principal investigator on the project.

"This has elements that surpass efforts at other universities," he said Wednesday. "What I liked about this program is it's a system level architecture that's being developed, and the fact is you have four technologies [nanosensors, wireless, energy saving and data mining] that really are at the leading edge."

"The prime objective is energy," Hatzinakos said in an interview in an accent that betrays his birth in Greece, "which has other implications as well, because what we learn from this technology can be applied to other areas." Batteries might be first thought of as a power source, but he pointed out if they need to be changed that could cut a node out of the network. So a logical alternative is solar power, as long as a storage system can be devised to conserve energy on overcast days.

But what if the sensor is in a building? Some sort of thermal source of energy could be used, or what Hatzinakos calls "scavenging of energy" -- a solar-powered sensor near a window might transfer energy via infrared technology to a sensor that isn't near a light.

"After all," he smiles, "sunlight is the wireless transfer of energy."

A number of optical and wireless technologies already exist that the team can take advantage of, Hatzinakos said, while Motorola has its own ad hoc network technology that could be modified.

The challenge, he said, will be to integrate what's known at what will be discovered by the team into something powerful and sustainable.

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