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Overview of Sensor Networks

Overview of Sensor Networks

The advances in science and technology are deeply intertwined. The telescope enables a deeper understanding of astronomy, the microscope brings bacteria into view, and satellites survey the Earth’s surface, expanding what we can perceive and measure. Now, we can use computers to visualize, through numerical simulation, physical phenomena we cannot observe through empirical means.

This trend has advanced with the prolonged exponential growth in the underlying semiconductor technology. The number of transistors on a cost-effective chip and, therefore, the processing or storage capacity of that chip doubles every year or two, following Moore’s law. While it has provided ever more computing power, researchers now apply this technology in ways that enable a new role for computing in science.

A given computing capacity becomes exponentially smaller and cheaper with each passing year. Researchers can use the semiconductor manufacturing techniques that underlie this miniaturization to build radios and exceptionally small mechanical structures that sense fields and forces in the physical world. These inexpensive, low-power communication devices can be deployed throughout a physical space, providing dense sensing close to physical phenomena, processing and communicating this information, and coordinating actions with other nodes. Combining these capabilities with the system software technology that forms the Internet makes it possible to instrument the world with increasing fidelity.

To realize this opportunity, information technology must address a new collection of challenges. The individual devices in a wireless sensor network are inherently resource constrained. They have limited processing speed, storage capacity, and communication bandwidth. These devices have substantial processing capability in the aggregate, but not individually, so we must combine their many vantage points on the physical phenomena within the network itself.

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