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Mesh Wireless Sensor Networks: Will Their Potential Ever Be Realized? (Part 2)

Soil ecologist Dr. Kathy Szlavecz and her husband, computer scientist, Dr. Alex Szalay, both at Johns Hopkins University, are testing a wireless sensor network (WSN; Mesh Sensor Network), developed by Dr. Szalay, his colleague, computer scientist Dr. Andreas Terzis, and their graduate students (read part 1). Mesh networks generate thousands of measurements monthly from wireless sensors. The husband/wife team says that WSN’s have the potential to revolutionize soil ecology by generating a previously impossible spatial resolution.  This week, read about the results of their experiments.

Mesh Wireless Sensor Network

Overall, the experiments were a scientific success, exposing variations in the soil microclimate not previously observed.

Results and Challenges:

About the performance of the network, Kathy says, “Overall, our experiments were a scientific success, exposing variations in the soil microclimate not previously observed. However, we encountered a number of challenging technical problems, such as the need for low-level programming to get the data from the sensor into a usable database, calibration across space and time, and cross-reference of measurements with external sources.

The ability of mesh networks that generate so much data also presents a data management challenge. Kathy explains, “We didn’t always have the resources or personnel who could organize the data.  We needed a dedicated research assistant who could clean, handle, and organize the data. And the software wasn’t user-friendly enough.  We constantly needed computer science expertise, and that’s not sustainable.”  

The team also faced setbacks stemming from inconsistencies generated by new computer science students beginning work on the project as previous students graduated. This is why the team is wondering if a commercial manufacturer in the industrial sector would be a better option to help finish the development of the mesh network.

Mesh Wireless Sensor Network

This deployment is located in the Atacama desert in Chile. Atacama is one of the highest, driest places on Earth. These sensors are co-located with the Atacama Cosmological Telescope. The goal of this deployment is to understand how the hardware survives in an extreme environment. In addition to the cold, dry climate, the desert is exposed to high UV radiation. These boxes are collecting soil temperature, soil moisture and soil CO2 data. (Image:

What’s Next?

Kathy and Alex say that mesh sensor network design has room for improvement.  Through their testing, the research team learned that, contrary to the promise of cheap sensor networks, sensor nodes are still expensive. They estimated the cost per mote including the main unit, sensor board, custom sensors, enclosure, and the time required to implement, debug and maintain the code to be around $1,000.  Kathy says, “The equipment cost will eventually be reduced through economies of scale, but there is clearly a need for standardized connectors for connecting external sensors and in general, a need to minimize the amount of custom hardware work necessary to deploy a sensor network.”  The team also sees a need for the development of network design and deployment tools that will instruct scientists where to place gateways and sensor relay points. These tools could replace the current labor-intensive trial and error process of manual topology adjustment that disturbs the deployment area.

Mesh Wireless Sensor Network

This deployment is located in the fields of the farming system project at BARC. Soil temperature and moisture probes are placed at various locations of a corn-soybean-wheat rotation. The goal is to understand and explain soil heterogeneity and to provide background data for trace gas measurements. (Image:

Future Requirements:

According to Kathy, wireless sensor networks promise richer data through inexpensive, low-impact collection—an attractive alternative to larger, more expensive data collection systems. However, to be of scientific value, the system design should be driven by the experiment’s requirements rather than technological limitations. She adds that focusing on the needs of ecologists will be the key to developing a wireless network technology that will be truly useful.  “While the computer science community has focused attention on routing algorithms, self-organization, and in-network processing, environmental monitoring applications require quite a different emphasis: reliable delivery of the majority of the data and metadata to the scientists, high-quality measurements, and reliable operation over long deployment cycles. We believe that focusing on this set of problems will lead to interesting new avenues in wireless sensor network research.” And, how to package all the data collected into a usable interface will also need to be addressed in the future.

You can read about Kathy’s experiments in detail at

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