Research Boost: Government Funding Spurs Progress

The FCC set aside a slice of broadcast spectrum for a future collision-avoidance system that could transmit signals from highway sensors and warn drivers about other cars on the road
Remote sensors that measure everything from the temperature in buildings to vibrations of machinery in a factory have been around for decades. But a stream of government funding in recent years has accelerated progress.

"Government funding really primed the pump," says Kris Pister, an electrical engineering and computer-science professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chief technology officer at startup Dust Networks Inc., which he founded in 2002. Sensor network research got a boost in 1997 when Pister, who'd been working for several years to combine microelectrical mechanical systems technology, traditional sensors, and wireless communications, petitioned the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to fund his research into "smart dust"--tiny sensor devices that could eventually be shrunk to the size of a grain of rice. David Tennenhouse, now a VP at Intel, was the Darpa exec who provided initial funding. David Culler, a Berkeley computer-science professor who later worked for Intel, wrote the software.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, computer-science professor Deborah Estrin in 2002 established the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing, and has secured a 10-year, $40 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study wireless sensor networks. "Darpa started seeding the original university research," Estrin says. "Now it's being pushed by the science community." Other universities researching the area include MIT and the University of Michigan.

Government agencies such as the Energy and Transportation departments have been funding sensor-net research as well. The Transportation Department has funded studies at automakers to put sensors on cars and trucks to help them avoid collision. The department also is exploring roads, bridges, and runways with networks of sensors that could broadcast information about driving or aircraft landing conditions under a program called Intelligent Transportation Systems.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission set aside a slice of broadcast spectrum for a future "collision-avoidance system" that could transmit signals from highway sensors and warn drivers about other cars on the road. The Transportation Department is testing the technology at an intersection in McLean, Va.

Illustration by Eboy

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