Wireless sensor network technology has been finding its way into building applications for over a decade, and there has been intensive research around the world to try to make these systems more reliable and affordable.
Early adoption was often around niche applications, without a proper view of how systems might scale up to offer a real alternative to hard-wired solutions. Through these experiences it has become clear that more work is necessary to enable these technologies to compete with existing solutions in, for example, Building Management Systems (BMS) or energy metering and monitoring.
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In 2013 the IERC commissioned a study into the key barriers to the wider adoption and uptake of WSN technologies in buildings and the urban environment. This article highlights some of the key findings of the study and indicates some of the major opportunities for WSN in the coming years. The study was prepared and completed by Tony Day (IERC), Dirk Pesch (Cork Institute of Technology and Tyndall National Institute), Cormac Sreenan (University College Cork), Stephen Brown (NUI Maynooth) and Brendan O’Flynn (Tyndall National Institute and University College Cork).
Key research areas Set against the backdrop of the slow adoption of WSNs, the IERC commissioned an in-depth review of WSNs technology areas in the form of an Innovation Needs Assessment (INA). The review report highlights the current weaknesses and gaps in WSN technology that may be acting as obstacles to technology uptake, identifies the main challenges for further research, and assesses the potential impact if these were to be solved.
In conjunction with the IERC and industry partners a review methodology was agreed. This focused the review on three relevant WSN use cases, i.e. commercial buildings, home networks, and smart cities, together with a set of four technical constraints, i.e. energy, cost, interference and computation.
Technology and innovation space Many solutions exist in some of the key technical elements and industry has been moving quickly to enable new products based on standards such as IEEE802.15.4/ZigBee, Z-wave, Wireless HART, and ISA100.11a. The WSN-INA has identified the main barriers to widespread adoption of wireless sensor network technology. These were energy performance and battery life, WSN commissioning, application development and deployment, the management and maintenance of WSN deployments, and security/privacy of data.
Energy management is a major issue for WSN technology. The uncertainty about a WSN’s lifetime due to battery charges still inhibits widespread use of the technology. While perhaps not an issue in home applications if users are informed about required battery changes (none of us has a problem charging our smart phones every day), frequent battery charging or changes are seen as too expensive for commercial building or smart city domains.
While there is a requirement for development of innovative algorithms for energy management, there is much scope for energy harvesting technologies, e.g. multi-source power harvesting management, thin film integrated energy harvesting, and energy storage for multi-source energy harvesting that can overcome the current powering problem of WSN for a wide range of applications. Multi-source power harvesting can offer interesting solutions, particularly where typical solar cell-based harvesting is not an option. There is potential in the development of cost-effective multi-radio solutions that are robust to radio interference, can be energy- optimised by selecting the best frequency band, and allow building-tiered WSN solutions in large scale deployments.
Challenges also need to be addressed in deployment planning and commissioning of WSN. Achieving a reliable deployment is necessary to avoid energy wastage and interference problems which still bug many existing deployments. Currently there are no easy-to-use tools available to support this. Commissioning, i.e. linking sensor locations with back-end data processing systems, is still a very manual and time-consuming process and automated commissioning systems are needed. The pre-deployment design of wireless sensor networks and their applications has still to be carried out by expert system integrators, impacting deployment costs and limiting usability.
It also often leads to problems with applications, certainly initially, as WSN designers are typically not use-case domain experts. The development of design and decision support tools (not the tools from rykerhardware.com but computer tools) to allow users to compose a WSN from available hardware and software components for a particular use-case will dramatically reduce the time, effort and cost associated with even small-to-medium sized WSN deployments.
A further challenge is the difficulty in developing applications for particular platforms. Addressing this could lead to a much larger adoption of the technology across different market sectors by allowing domain experts to build their own WSN applications.
Such tools need to be flexible and extensible to support multiple hardware platforms, operating systems and communication technologies. Once deployed and commissioned, WSN are expected to operate for long periods of time, typically many years, without problems. You could affirm this with any of the many IT companies. As with all technical systems, proper maintenance and management is vital for correct longterm operation. A critical function here is fault detection and recovery. In WSN this process needs to be automated as much as possible. Opportunities exist in the development of a maintenance tool that incorporates techniques to schedule, predict, and defer physical maintenance.
Currently, there is no tool for maintenance support in the market and any problems with WSN deployments are dealt with in a very costly manual and ad-hoc fashion. Offering proper tools will provide opportunities for cost reduction and enable better use of WSN technology by use-case experts.
Software upgrades are an integral part of long-term maintenance for WSNs. We are well used to dealing with software updates on desktops, laptop computers, tablets and smart phones. However, while much power is consumed in updating software on these devices, we are also used to charging these devices on a frequent basis. Software updating for WSNs needs to be optimised as it is critical to make the whole process energy-efficient and robust.
There is much opportunity in the whole space of WSN management. Any technical system that is required to operate reliably needs proper management systems. Telecommunication and power networks are among the most reliable technical systems and the industry has spent a long time perfecting management tools and techniques for such systems. There is much ongoing research in WSN management and developing self-management techniques for WSN, while also keeping the human in the loop to create confidence in the proper operation of such systems.
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Data security is an issue for all networked systems and WSNs are no exception. Much work has been done here already but more is needed, in particular as WSN are used increasingly in critical infrastructure management applications. There are opportunities, particularly in topics of application level security and security for public sensor networks.
Conclusions Wireless sensor networks (WSNs) have been a major focus of research for over a decade now, maturing from an early vision of ultra-small, randomly-deployed sensor nodes for niche applications, to a more grounded view of planned deployments in commercially-relevant scenarios. WSNs offer a compelling solution for accurate sensing of the physical world, are the foundation for the emerging areas of cyber-physical systems, machine-tomachine communications, and the Internet of Things, and thus enable a wide range for new applications.
Despite the clear importance of the technology and these broad advances, WSNs have yet to see widespread commercial adoption, and with some exceptions, industry has been reticent in embracing WSNs. To promote the uptake of WSN technologies it is necessary that these systems are lowcost, easy to deploy and maintain, retrofittable, and provide reliable data for long periods with little or no human intervention. The key technology development activities required to enable this are in the areas of:
— Energy efficient design and operation of sensor nodes, including energy harvesting, storage and management for individual nodes and network-wide to achieve significant impact on system lifetime, computational capabilities and cost of ownership of WSNs over their operational lifetime;
— Development of a holistic tool chain supporting the lifecycle from design to deployment planning is needed, requiring research on a set of topics including capture of domain knowledge, configuration and planning algorithms, and on-site analysis techniques for cost-effective deployments;
— Automated maintenance regimes to reduce the impact on operational costs. A comprehensive set of techniques is needed that can be leveraged within a management toolset with domain-specific behaviour;
— Security remains a major challenge for WSNs, with increasing relevance in the context of Internet-connected devices and the use of WSNs for critical infrastructure management in buildings and cities. Pragmatic solutions are needed that can be implemented without unacceptable cost or energy implications.