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NSF grant helps Pitt researchers explore large-scale wireless sensor networks for environmental monitoring

News release author: Sonia Shah

PITTSBURGH (November 4, 2013) ... Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh and Indiana University hope to improve the ability of researchers to collect greater amounts of field data through the development of large-scale wireless sensor networks (WSN). The researchers at the both universities were awarded a parallel grant of $465,582 in total, with $232,474 to Pittsburgh through the Division of Computer and Network Systems of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The team's research focuses on advances in wireless sensor networks (WSNs) and the opportunities they enable for large-scale environment monitoring applications. 

Principal investigator at Pittsburgh is  Xu Liang, PhD , professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering. Dr. Liang's research focuses on the laws that govern water, energy, and carbon cycles, and how these cycles affect the health of the environment. 

The research is fundamentally important because an extension of the battery lifetime for large scale viable WSNs would allow an extended lifetime for field monitoring, which in turn would allow for the effective and efficient collection of valuable field data at unprecedented high special densities and long time durations. The research is specifically focused on ecohydrology, an interdisciplinary field that studies the interaction between water and ecosystems. 

"In the end we want to improve our understanding of how some of the ecohydrological processes behave at different spatial scales," says Liang. "The ultimate goal is to substantially reduce the prohibitive cost of large-scale WSN deployments for scientific, national security and military purposes by creating a new paradigm of optimal design, development, and management/operations for these WSNs to significantly extend their lifetimes and have them help us find solutions to the challenging ecohydrological problems." 

The project investigates the energy-efficient networks through a large, outdoor WSN using a testbed provided by the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's Beechwood Farms Nature Reserve, about fifty minutes from campus. The research uses the testbed to study innovative compressed data collection in WSN under wireless link dynamics through an integrated theoretical and empirical approach. The testbed also allows the team to investigate the heterogeneity of hydrological processes within the ecosystem. The WSN allows for collection of valuable ecohydrological data at a finer resolution, which is much better than what satellite data has provided in the past. This data helps to explore certain fundamental ecohydrological laws. 

By using this particular testbed, researchers at the Indiana University are also able to develop a novel and rigorous framework of topology tomography for real-world WSNs operated in noisy communication environments. The developed framework can be essential not only for routing improvement, topology control, hot spot elimination and anomaly detection in practice, but also for the emerging compressed sensing-based data collection. 

In addition, the project also creates an educational component for students. At the pre-college level, middle and high school students are invited to participate in two free summer camps during the summers of 2015 and 2016. The camps will be twofold. First, researchers will give lectures on the basics of what they are doing in the fields of environmental science and engineering as well as wireless sensor networking. Second, the Audubon Society will give lectures on the reserve and the birds and plants that are a part of it. 

"The camps will also have a hands-on component for students. We will show students how to use our instruments to measure hydrological variables and the WSN works using our real-world WSN testbed," says Liang. "Our goal is to educate and stimulate students' interests in science and engineering at their early development stages." 

Undergraduate students and PhD students, in addition to their direct participation in this research project, will also have a hand in this educational component. They will take a lead in the hands-on section with the middle and high school students in summer camps, as well as conduct their own creative projects based on the WSN testbed in Liang's classes. 


Contact: Paul Kovach