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Bridging The Gap Between Wireless Sensor Networks And The Scientists Who Use Them

ScienceDaily (Apr. 14, 2009) — A new, simpler programming language for wireless sensor networks is designed for easy use by geologists who might use them to monitor volcanoes and biologists who rely on them to understand birds' nesting behaviors, for example. Researchers at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University have written the language with the novice programmer in mind.
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"Most existing programming languages for wireless sensor networks are a nightmare for nonprogrammers," said Robert Dick, associate professor in the U-M Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. "We're working on ways to allow the scientists who actually use the devices to program them reliably without having to hire an embedded systems programming expert."

Finding an embedded systems expert to program a sensor network is difficult and costly and can lead to errors because the person using the network is not the person programming it, Dick said. The cost and disconnect associated with the situation means these networks aren't being used to their full potential.

Lan Bai, U-M doctoral student in electrical engineering and computer science, will present a paper on the new programming languages on April 13 at the Conference on Information Processing in Sensor Networks in St. Louis.

Modern wireless sensor networks, which have become more common in the past five years, allow researchers to monitor variables such as temperature, vibration and humidity in real time at various points across a broad environment. The sensors range in size from several centimeters across to several inches. Unlike passive radio frequency identification, or RFID tags, these active sensors can compute and communicate with each other through radio.

Civil engineers are working on using wireless sensor networks to monitor vibration in bridges to keep tabs on their health.

To create their language, the researchers examined the variables that a scientist using a sensor network might want to monitor, and the areas in which the scientist might need flexibility. They identified 19 of these "application level properties." They then grouped them into seven categories, or archetypes. They've essentially broken up the main programming language into seven archetypes that zero in on specific types of monitoring that different researchers might use. They wrote a language for one archetype and are working on others. They call their first language WASP, which stands for Wireless sensor network Archetype-Specific Programming language.

In WASP, scientists tell the system what they want it to do, rather than how they want it to complete the task.

"Scientists enter the requirements and our system sorts out the implementation details for them automatically," Dick said.

In a 56-hour, 28-user study that they believe to be the first to evaluate a broad range of sensor network languages, the researchers compared novice programmers' experiences with WASP and four common, more complicated languages.

On average, users of other languages successfully completed assigned tasks only 30 percent of the time. It took those who succeeded an average of 22 minutes to finish. When using WASP, the average success rate was 81 percent, and it took those who succeeded an average of 12 minutes. That's a speed improvement of more than 44 percent.

The paper is called "Archetype-Based Design: Sensor Network Programming for Application Experts, Not Just Programming Experts." Peter Dinda, an associate professor at Northwestern University, is a co-author with Dick and Bai. This research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Adapted from materials provided by University of Michigan.
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Nano Changes Rise To Macro Importance In A Key Electronics Material

ScienceDaily (Apr. 14, 2009) — By combining the results of a number of powerful techniques for studying material structure at the nanoscale, a team of researchers from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), working with colleagues in other federal labs and abroad, believe they have settled a long-standing debate over the source of the unique electronic properties of a material with potentially great importance for wireless communications.
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The new study of silver niobate not only opens the door to engineering improved electronic components for smaller, higher performance wireless devices, but also serves as an example of understanding how subtle nanoscale features of a material can give rise to major changes in its physical properties.

Silver niobate is a ceramic dielectric, a class of materials used to make capacitors, filters and other basic components of wireless communications equipment and other high-frequency electronic devices. A useful dielectric needs to have a large dielectric constant—roughly, a measure of the material’s ability to hold an electric charge—that is stable in the operating temperature range. The material also should have low dielectric losses—which means that it does not waste energy as heat and preserves much of its intended signal strength. In the important gigahertz range of the radio spectrum—used for a wide variety of wireless applications—silver niobate-based ceramics are the only materials known that combine a high, temperature-stable dielectric constant with sufficiently low dielectric losses.

It’s been known for some time that silver niobate’s unique dielectric properties are temperature dependent—the dielectric constant peaks in a broad range near room temperature in these ceramics, which makes them suitable for practical applications. Earlier studies were unable to identify the structural basis of the unusual dielectric response because no accompanying changes in the overall crystal structure could be observed. “The crystal symmetry doesn’t seem to change at those temperatures,” explains NIST materials scientist Igor Levin, “but that’s because people were using standard techniques that tell you the average structure. The important changes happen at the nanoscale and are lost in averages.”

Only in recent years, says Levin, have the specialized instruments and analytic techniques been available to probe nanoscale structural changes in crystals. Even so, he says, “these subtle deviations from the average are so small that any single measurement gives only partial information on the structure. You need to combine several complementary techniques that look at different angles of the problem.” Working at different facilities* the team combined results from several high-resolution probes using X-rays, neutrons and electrons—tools that are sensitive to both the local and average crystal structure— to understand silver niobate’s dielectric properties. The results revealed an intricate interplay between the oxygen atoms, arranged in an octahedral pattern that defines the compound’s crystal structure, and the niobium atoms at the centers of the octahedra.

At high temperatures, the niobium atoms are slightly displaced, but their average position remains in the center—so the shift isn’t seen in averaging measurements. As the compound cools, the oxygen atoms cooperate by moving a little, causing the octahedral structure to rotate slightly. This movement generates strain which “locks” the niobium atoms into off-centered positions—but not completely. The resulting partial disorder of the niobium atoms gives rise to the dielectric properties. The results, the researchers say, point to potential avenues for engineering similar properties in other compounds.

The work was supported in part by the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.K. Science and Technology Facilities Council.

* The study required measurements at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory, the Lujan Neutron Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the ISIS Pulsed Neutron and Muon Source at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (United Kingdom). In addition to NIST, researchers from Argonne, Los Alamos, ISIS and the University of Sheffield contributed to the paper.

Journal reference:

1. I. Levin, V. Krayzman, J.C. Woicik, J. Karapetrova, T. Proffen, M.G. Tucker and I.M. Reaney. Structural changes underlying the diffuse dielectric response in AgNbO3. Phys. Rev. B, 79, 104113, online March 26, 2009

Adapted from materials provided by National Institute of Standards and Technology.
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Averting Radio Spectrum Saturation, Opportunistically

ScienceDaily (Apr. 13, 2009) — Mobile users want better video calls, streaming television and faster downloads, placing more demands on the limited radio spectrum available to operators. Could handsets that intelligently sense their radio environment and opportunistically grab free bandwidth be a solution?
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A team of European researchers believe they could be. Whereas most recent initiatives aimed at making more efficient use of the radio spectrum have looked at spectrum management from the network end, the team behind the ORACLE (Opportunistic Radio Communications in unLicensed Environments) project focused instead on making handsets actively manage how and when they use the network.

ORACLE’s pioneering approach promises to minimise bandwidth saturation in both licensed bands of the radio spectrum, such as that used to carry mobile phone signals, and unlicensed industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) bands – the kind used by WiFi networks and RFID chips.

“With demand booming for new services, both in terms of the number of connections and also quality, we need to find better ways of utilising the radio spectrum available to us… otherwise we will reach a point of saturation,” notes Dominique Noguet, the head of the Digital Architecture Design and Prototyping lab at Minatec CEA-LETI in France and coordinator of the ORACLE project. “We are dealing with a finite resource, but one that can be reused in novel ways,” he adds.

Because it is used for many kinds of communications, from TV broadcasting and mobile phone signals to wireless internet access and military applications – each of which could interfere with the other – the radio spectrum is probably the most tightly regulated natural resource in the world. Mobile operators, who pay billions of euros for licenses, are therefore continually looking for ways to squeeze more out of the limited bandwidth available to them. However, while more efficient network management by operators has gone some way toward addressing the issue, there are limits to the gains in capacity that can be made by following that approach, Noguet says.

“Recent initiatives have focused on operators sharing information about network use with each other so that high traffic on one network can utilise unused bandwidth on another. But I doubt operators will be very willing to share that information as it could help their competitors,” he notes.

Instead, the team behind the ORACLE project have put mobile handsets to the task of finding available bandwidth and using it in the best way possible. In some cases, the approach takes operators and traditional mobile networks (centred on static base stations that relay signals) out of the equation.

The core technology relies on highly sensitive sensors in the handset that monitor radio spectrum usage by other devices and base stations in their immediate vicinity, combined with software that opportunistically decides when and what bandwidth to use when it becomes available. The approach is known as Opportunistic Radio (OR) and it could lead to a dramatic rethink of the way networks are managed, Noguet predicts.

“The techniques go far beyond the capabilities of modern mobile terminals, but they hold the potential to overcome part of the bandwidth problems operators are facing,” he explains.

Unburdening the network with ad hoc communications

The technology could, for example, allow handsets to create ad hoc networks with other mobile devices in their immediate vicinity to share data, reducing the amount of traffic passing through base stations and the wider mobile network.

This was proposed for UMTS-FDD systems in which the uplink band could be used to establish the ad hoc networks. And, in the case of wireless local area networks (WLANs), ORACLE has demonstrated an OR device capable of taking into account both the frequency dimension, by switching channels, and also the time the frequency is available, providing a new approach to getting people connected even when the network is highly congested.

“One of our demonstrators showed how a device could utilise the same channel as another device receiving streaming video by making use of time slots that previously would not have been utilised as efficiently,” Noguet says. “The upshot is that, in congested WiFi networks, such as in a busy hotel, more people would be able to get connected and the speed and stability of their connections would be better.”

Though Noguet stresses that the ORACLE project focused on enabling technology for more efficient spectrum use rather than on the applications that use that spectrum, he says implementing OR techniques should greatly improve quality of service for mobile and WiFi network users. Operators, on the other hand, would benefit from being able to provide more services to more people more efficiently and at lower cost.

However, as with many technologies in the telecommunications field, and despite widespread interest from operators, it may be some time before the system developed in the ORACLE project starts being implemented commercially.

“You only have to look at the slower-than-expected deployment of 3G services to see how far implementation lags behind innovation in the sector,” Noguet notes.

Nonetheless, one of the ORACLE partners, the Technical University of Dresden, has set up a spin-off company, called Inradios, to commercially exploit some of the technology developed in the project, while the partners are also actively involved in developing a new standard based on the results of their research.

ORACLE received funding under the ICT strand of the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme.
Adapted from materials provided by ICT Results.
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Breakthrough For Post-4G Communications

ScienceDaily (Mar. 14, 2009) — With much of the mobile world yet to migrate to 3G mobile communications, let alone 4G, European researchers are already working on a new technology able to deliver data wirelessly up to 12.5Gb/s.
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The technology – known as ‘millimetre (mm)-wave’ or microwave photonics – has commercial applications not just in telecommunications (access and in-house networks) but also in instrumentation, radar, security, radio astronomy and other fields.

Despite the quantum leap in performance made possible by combining the latest radio and optics technologies to produce mm-wave components, it will probably only be a few years before there are real benefits for the average EU citizen.

This is thanks to research and development work being done by the EU-funded project IPHOBAC, which brings together partners from both academia and industry with the aim of developing a new class of components and systems for mm-wave applications.

The mm-wave band is the extremely high frequency part of the radio spectrum, from 30 to 300 gigahertz (GHz), and it gets it name from having a wavelength of one to 10mm. Until now, the band has been largely undeveloped, so the new technology makes available for exploitation more of the scarce and much-in-demand spectrum.

New products from Europe

IPHOBAC is not simply a ‘paper project’ where the technology is researched, but very much a practical exercise to develop and commercialise a new class of products with a ‘made in Europe’ label on them.

While several companies in Japan and the USA have been working on merging optical and radio frequency technologies, IPHOBAC is the world’s first fully integrated effort in the field, with a lot of different companies involved. This has resulted in the three-year project, which runs until end-2009, already having an impressive list of achievements to its name.

It recently unveiled a tiny component, a transmitter able to transmit a continuous signal not only through the entire mm-wave band but beyond. Its full range is 30 to 325GHz and even higher frequency operation is now under investigation. The first component worldwide able to deliver that range of performance, it will be used in both communications and radar systems. Other components developed by the project include 110GHz modulators, 110GHz photodetectors, 300GHz dual-mode lasers, 60GHz mode-locked lasers, and 60GHz transceivers.

Truly disruptive technology

Project coordinator Andreas Stöhr says millimetre-wave photonics is a truly disruptive technology for high frequency applications. “It offers unique capabilities such as ultra-wide tunability and low-phase noise which are not possible with competing technologies, such as electronics,” he says.

What this will mean in practical terms is not only ultra-fast wireless data transfer over telecommunications networks, but also a whole range of new applications (http://www.iphobac-survey.org).

One of these, a 60GHz Photonic Wireless System, was demonstrated at the ICT 2008 exhibition in Lyon and was voted into the Top Ten Best exhibits. The system allows wireless connectivity in full high definition (HD) between devices in the home, such as a set-top box, TV, PC, and mobile devices. It is the first home area network to demonstrate the speeds necessary for full wireless HD of up to 3Gb/s.

The system can also be used to provide multi-camera coverage of live events in HD. “There is no time to compress the signal as the director needs to see live feed from every camera to decide which picture to use, and ours is the only technology which can deliver fast enough data rates to transmit uncompressed HD video/audio signals,” says Stöhr.

The same technology has been demonstrated for access telecom networks and has delivered world record data rates of up to 12.5Gb/s over short- to medium-range wireless spans, or 1500 times the speed of upcoming 4G mobile networks.

One way in which the technology can be deployed in the relatively short term, according to Stöhr, is wirelessly supporting very fast broadband to remote areas. “You can have your fibre in the ground delivering 10Gb/s but we can deliver this by air to remote areas where there is no fibre or to bridge gaps in fibre networks,” he says.

Systems for outer space

The project is also developing systems for space applications, working with the European Space Agency. Stöhr said he could not reveal details as this has not yet been made public, save to say the systems will operate in the 100GHz band and are needed immediately.

There are various ongoing co-operation projects with industry to commercialise the components and systems, and some components are already at a pre-commercial stage and are being sold in limited numbers. There are also ongoing talks with some of the biggest names in telecommunications, including Siemens, Ericsson, Thales Communications and Malaysia Telecom.

“In just a few years time everybody will be able to see the results of the IPHOBAC project in telecommunications, in the home, in radio astronomy and in space. It is a completely new technology which will be used in many applications even medical ones where mm-wave devices to detect skin cancer are under investigation,” says Stöhr.
Adapted from materials provided by ICT Results.
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Wireless Drug Control: Could Remote Drug Delivery Devices Be Hacked?

ScienceDaily (Feb. 6, 2009) — Electronic implants that dispense medicines automatically or via a wireless medical network are on the horizon. Australian and US researchers warn of the security risks.
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With the advent of personalized medicine, advances in diagnostics and the miniaturization of sensors and control systems for delivering drugs automatically, the Remote Intelligent Drug Delivery System (RIDDS) may soon be a reality. Such devices, implanted under the skin, would remove the inconvenience of manual drug delivery. By connecting a RIDDS to a wireless medical control centre wirelessly patients with physical disabilities, learning difficulties, or who are otherwise unable to give themselves medication could benefit.

RIDDS device will have inbuilt sensors to monitor biomarkers of a patient's symptoms, pulse rate, or blood oxygen levels, for instance. Wireless control will allow healthcare workers to monitor the patient's health as well as device behavior. They could adjust medication frequency or levels as necessary based either on direct patient observation or sensor outputs. However, one aspect of RIDDS deployment that is yet to be addressed is security.

YanYan Wang and Carey Thaldorf at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, USA, and colleague John Haynes of Charles Darwin University, Darwin, Australia, outline the security risks of RIDDS in a forthcoming issue of IJBET, and present some possible countermeasures.

They point out that any wireless communications technology is open to various security issues, which may fall under the generic umbrella of hacking, or cracking, including eavesdropping, jamming, and tampering. A hacker could intercept and alter transmitted data, they might steal personal information, or someone with malicious intent might spoof the sensor outputs of a RIDDS. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to imagine that such a person, having hijacked the RIDDS connection might trigger commands to release medication inappropriately and so harm or even kill a patient.

"We have raised security concerns in relation to RIDDS, especially in the context of medical sensor networks, because, among other reasons, a failure to do so could risk the privacy and possibly the life of a patient," the researchers say. "The dilemma in RIDDS makes adoption of the technologies intimidating," they add. The team concludes that, "Security mechanisms for RIDDS must be fully considered prior to the widespread deployment of such delivery systems."

Journal reference:

1. Wang et al. Security risks for remote intelligent Pharmacy-on-a-Chip delivery systems. International Journal of Biomedical Engineering and Technology, 2009; 2 (2): 135 DOI: 10.1504/IJBET.2009.022912

Adapted from materials provided by Inderscience Publishers, via EurekAlert!, a service of AAAS.
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