A team of OSU undergrads designs a wireless sensor system to help scientists study mountainous forests from the comfort of their PDA.
The science of mountain airsheds requires a strong back as well as a sharp mind – especially when you’re lugging a 65-pound golf-cart battery in your pack.
An interdisciplinary team of OSU students is working to make the science easier on the back, and also the environment. The three seniors – Drew Smith, Erin Wyckoff and Brian Wilson – recently spent 10 weeks scaling the steep slopes of H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, pooling their individual expertise in electrical engineering, soil science and atmospheric science to test and refine a networked wireless system for monitoring what OSU’s Terra magazine calls the “exhaled byproducts of the forest” (see Grasping for Air). They are helping unplug the high-tech sensors that researchers use to measure the ebb and flow of carbon-laden air, connecting them instead through a new generation of ultra-low-power sensing devices that save energy and vastly extend the range of existing equipment in mountainous terrain.
Thanks to their efforts, funded by the National Science Foundation, the miles of electric wire that currently snake through the experimental watershed in glistening black tangles will be relegated to the dustbin of technology.
Wires “degrade, animals chew through them, we trip over them,” says Adam Kennedy, the forest science faculty research assistant who coordinated the team. “This could totally reshape the design of future research sites.”
The project is a team effort. One typical workday in early August, Smith could be seen tapping away at his laptop as he crouched among ferns, reprogramming a custom-fabricated circuit board – the “hub” of the integrated system. The electrical engineering major pored over some 800 lines of computer code while Wilson and Wyckoff trekked the trails, positioning and repositioning the sensors in search of sweet spots that picked up signals.
Wilson was working to upgrade the Andrews’ air-sensing system, to gather vertical temperature and pressure profiles continuously and in real time. Wyckoff, meanwhile, programmed the “brains” of the Andrews’ prized auto-sampler – a state-of-the-art machine that measures carbon flux in soil – so it will work without wires. Instead of tramping across sensitive undergrowth to download data from probes that record moisture, decomposition, soil chemistry and other information, scientists will be able to tap readings remotely through their BlackBerry or Palm Pilot.
Once researchers develop robust sensor networks that operate without wires and batteries, the mysteries of mountain forests will be easier to unravel – for both the forests and the scientists.