In the future, the internet will increasingly be backed up with intelligent networks of sensors. Even smart phones or other devices that 'happen' to be nearby will become part of a 'global monitoring system', taking measurements and communicating their results. This is the prediction made by Prof. Paul Havinga on 10 June during his inaugural address as Professor of Pervasive Systems at the University of Twente. The speech is entitled 'Seeing the Unseeable'.
The concept of 'smart dust', which first emerged around ten years ago, has always been a source of inspiration for Havinga. It involves the creation of a system of minute sensors capable of transmitting and receiving data, and simply scatter these where they are needed. The system operates autonomously and a network is established with other 'peer' sensors without any central coordinator. This means that no computer is needed. This is going to present researchers with some significant technological challenges. Havinga gives some illustrations: "Pervasive systems need to be able to work in a completely unknown environment, often with unknown resources available. Then there is the contradiction that the sensors need to be 'sensing' constantly, while at the same time they preferably need to be switched off to save energy."
From fire fighting to health care
Over the past years, Havinga and his research group have discovered some interesting applications for this system of networks. It's true that they are not as small as they were predicted to be ten years ago, but they often do not actually need to be that small. In his inaugural speech, Havinga gives the example of sensors for forest fires with independently functioning mini-helicopters to scatter the sensors, which will then carry out detailed measurements. In combination with sensors worn by the fire fighters on their suits, it is possible to build up a picture of the forest fire very quickly.
The sensors will also be widely used in the health care sector too, he expects. They could be used to monitor activity levels, for example, or to give feedback to patients suffering from COPD. The sensors will then form a 'body area network'.
Another step forwards would be to 'harvest' information from all devices which are located in a particular place at that moment. 'Opportunistic sensing' or 'crowd sourcing' are the new terms for this concept. A first step in this direction has been taken by using the location data from mobile telephones to compile information about traffic congestion. However, for a monitoring system that is truly global, there are still a few hurdles to be overcome, says Havinga. The concerns he hears expressed about privacy are one such obstacle, as are concerns about the environment. Plus, he says, it's not always true that 'smarter is better'. "The convenience of a house full of intelligent devices working together may sometimes actually be rather disappointing if unpredictable behaviour makes it a rather tiresome environment to be in." However, invisible computers will make a significant contribution to a better future according to Havinga. They will allow us insight into the various ecosystems around us and how they interact. In this way, they will allow us to see the unseeable.
Paul Havinga works with the Centre for Telematics and Information Technology (CTIT) at the University of Twente. He is co-founder of the company Ambient Systems. Working with Havinga's research group, Ambient Systems has developed a monitoring system for water quality in the Great Barrier Reef. In 2007, Havinga won the Van den Kroonenberg Prize for young entrepreneurs. In the same year, he also won the ICTRegie Award. He was the initiator of large-scale national and international projects such as EYES - energy-efficient sensor networks - and Smart Surroundings.