Wireless sensor networks—The basics—Part I

C. Siva Ram Murthy -October 05, 2012

Sensor networks are highly distributed networks of small, lightweight wireless nodes, deployed in large numbers to monitor the environment or system by the measurement of physical parameters such as temperature, pressure, or relative humidity.

Building sensors has been made possible by the recent advances in micro-electro mechanical systems (MEMS)1 technology. Each node of the sensor network consists of three subsystems: the sensor subsystem which senses the environment, the processing subsystem which performs local computations on the sensed data, and the communication subsystem which is responsible for message exchange with neighboring sensor nodes. While individual sensors have limited sensing region, processing power, and energy, networking a large number of sensors gives rise to a robust, reliable, and accurate sensor network covering a wider region. The network is fault-tolerant because many nodes are sensing the same events. Further, the nodes cooperate and collaborate on their data, which leads to accurate sensing of events in the environment. The two most important operations in a sensor network are data dissemination, that is, the propagation of data/queries throughout the network, and data gathering, that is, the collection of observed data from the individual sensor nodes to a sink.

Sensor networks consist of different types of sensors such as seismic, thermal, visual, and infrared, and they monitor a variety of ambient conditions such as temperature, humidity, pressure, and characteristics of objects and their motion.

Sensor nodes can be used in military, health, chemical processing, and disaster relief scenarios. Some of the academic and industry-supported research programs on sensor networks include working on Smart Dust at the University of California, Berkeley (UCB), and wireless integrated network sensor (WINS) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

The applications of sensor networks are described in the next section, followed by the differences between ad hoc and sensor networks. The major issues and major forms of sensor network architecture —layered and clustered —are discussed.

Various protocols for the major operations of data dissemination and gathering are then described, followed by specialized MAC protocols developed or modified to suit sensor networks. Techniques adopted by sensor nodes to discover their location and the measures to assess the quality of coverage of a sensor network are described.

Finally, some sensor-network specific issues such as energy-efficient hardware design, synchronization, transport layer protocols, security, and real-time communication are discussed.


12.1.1 Applications of Sensor Networks

Sensor nodes are used in a variety of applications which require constant monitoring and detection of specific events. The military applications of sensor nodes include battlefield surveillance and monitoring, guidance systems of intelligent missiles, and detection of attack by weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical, biological, or nuclear. Sensors are also used in environmental applications such as forest fire and flood detection, and habitat exploration of animals. Sensors can be extremely useful in patient diagnosis and monitoring. Patients can wear small sensor devices that monitor their physiological data such as heart rate or blood pressure. The data collected can be sent regularly over the network to automated monitoring systems which are designed to alert the concerned doctor on detection of an anomaly. Such systems provide patients a greater freedom of movement instead of their being confined to a hospital. Sensor nodes can also be made sophisticated enough to correctly identify allergies and prevent wrong diagnosis.

Sensors will soon find their way into a host of commercial applications at home and in industries. Smart sensor nodes can be built into appliances at home, such as ovens, refrigerators, and vacuum cleaners, which enable them to interact with each other and be remote-controlled. The home can provide a “smart environment” which adapts itself according to the user’s tastes. For instance, the lighting, music, and ambiance in the room can be automatically set according to the user’s preferences.

Similar control is useful in office buildings too, where the airflow and temperature of different parts of the building can be automatically controlled. Warehouses could improve their inventory control system by installing sensors on the products to track their movement. The applications of sensor networks are endless, limited only by the human imagination.

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