Into the Deep

A recent BBC story described research by the Australian Institute of Marine Science and James Cook University to continuously monitor the health and general well-being of the corals in the Great Barrier Reef. Not only is this a very sexy and important project, it also illustrates several important major trends in sensors.

The researchers plan to use collections of environmental sensors (nicknamed Digital Skins) placed around the reef and in water catchments on the mainland to monitor parameters such as salinity, temperature, and nutrient levels. Each sensor within the skin has a unique address and computing power and each sensor cluster uses GPS to know where it is geographically. In a stroke of sheer and utter cleverness, the researchers are using microwave signals transmitted along the surface of the ocean to send the data along to the next sensor bundle and ultimately to the mainland. Finally, a grid of computers crunches the vast quantities of data generated.

Now, let's play "spot the sensor trends." Smart sensors? Check. The project uses smart sensors—sensors that incorporate sensing, processing, and communication abilities. In addition, the sensors have unique identities and, by adding in GPS, know where they are. Sensor networks—especially wireless sensor networks? Check. Sensors communicate among themselves and with the mainland data collection points using a wireless communication system, albeit an exotic one. Condition-based/continuous monitoring? Check. The stated aim of the project is continuous monitoring. Rather than nipping out to the reef to see what's happening on a quasi-regular basis and getting a very limited selection of data points, continual monitoring of the reef conditions promises to give a much clearer idea of what's going on and why.

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