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NMSU assistant professor receives NSF grant to research inexpensive, customizable, and easily programmable wireless sensors

New Mexico State University celebrated at a Research Rally today for an assistant professor who has received funding from the National Science Foundation he plans to use to make a significant impact on wireless sensor networks in experimental biology research.


Three men and wireless sensor
Satyajayant Misra and his students, Michael Harris, right, and Evan Salazar, standing, discussing their wireless sensor node prototypes. (NMSU photo by Harrison Brooks)

Satyajayant Misra, with the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Computer Science, is one of only 11 people to receive the CREATIV (Creative Research Awards for Transformative Interdisciplinary Ventures) award through the Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) initiative. With the $800,000 award, Dr. Misra and his colleagues will be developing small, high-quality wireless sensors that will not only be allow continuous monitoring of aquatic and terrestrial animals with discomfiting them, but will also be inexpensive.

Research in WSNs has attracted much attention since it started two decades ago. The vision has been that the application of WSNs would be commonplace in sciences, industries, the military and in everyday life. However, widespread use of WSNs has not been realized, even in a domain such as experimental biology, Misra said. Monitoring and manipulation of biological subjects are still performed manually, significantly limiting data reproducibility, documentation, reliability and overall research productivity.

The lack of adoption of WSNs can be attributed to three main barriers: current sensor nodes are expensive and fragile, hard to customize for specific scientific inquiry, and hard for non-experts to program.

Misra was inspired to pursue this research by watching one of his colleagues in biology, Professor Graciela Unguez, monitor and stimulate electric fish in an aquarium. Unguez's students take the fishes out of the water and attach electrodes to them to perform these tasks.

"However, the problem is that when you take the fish out of the water, they may become scared or disoriented, so the data received from them is probably not accurate," Misra said. "This phenomenon may be generalized to almost all closely monitored animal subjects in research."

WSNs can help transform experimental biology research by providing previously unavailable, automatic and frequent monitoring and manipulation of the subjects in natural and experimental environments without human intervention.
Misra and his team, including Hong Huang, with electrical and computer engineering, have created a prototype they are now working to miniaturize. They are addressing the major barriers to wireless sensor networks by building a framework that consists of low cost, rugged customizable sensor hardware and easy-to-use software and firmware.

Misra and his team envision branching out from biological research to allow the public to individualize the wireless sensors for their needs, whether that means using the devise to monitor crops or the weather, or even creating a customized home security system.

"This project is not only going to enable experimental researchers in the lab and in the field to stimulate and monitor animals or specimens in real time without human intervention," said NMSU President Barbara Couture, "it will also bring us one step closer to making WSNs that do this kind of data retrieval commonplace in our daily lives."

For the time being, the NMSU researchers are looking at the longevity and durability of the sensors as well as harvesting different sources of energy to operate the devices, such as solar energy.

"We are all very excited to receive this award,' Misra said. "When we were writing the proposal, the goal was to create a major societal impact. When someone looks back 20 years from now, they are going to say, 'Really? People didn't use wireless sensor networks, because they're all over the place now!'"