Sandia LabNews

Sandia interns begin to research wireless networks

Participants in the Embedded Reasoning Institute have seen the future, and that future is wireless.

Six upper-division students have begun a summer internship in the new institute to explore wireless networks of computers so small, they can be "worn" as easily as a cell phone or personal data assistant, or PDA, (such as a Palm Pilot). The students will investigate design and development of these small, computerized embedded systems connected by wireless networks.

The research includes work on the wireless hardware as well as development of software that uses artificial intelligence features to learn and reach decisions.

"The students are really excited about it," says Christine Yang (8920), who coordinates the institute. Fellow mentors are Rob Armstrong (8920), Nina Berry (8920), Carmen Pancerella (8920), and Ron Kyker (8411). "This is a growing field," Christine continues. For instance, there is a new publication dedicated to open source embedded solutions, the Embedded Linux Journal. Embedded systems are already offered in some cell phones, in which incorporation of global positioning systems allows the service provider to send emergency roadside assistance, even if the caller is lost.

Smart appliances, wearable computers

People also talk about "smart" appliances, such as a refrigerator that knows when the milk is running low, or a snack machine that recognizes it needs to stock up on corn chips. National security applications of these emerging technologies might include using wireless networks to gather information on sensors in flight tests.

In the interdisciplinary, upper-division summer institute, the students are working on very basic frameworks for computer-based situational understanding, Christine says. The Tiqit computer, developed at the Stanford Wearable Computing Laboratory, is being used as an example of a potential platform. Roughly as powerful as a desktop computer (although not as quick), it fits in the palm of a hand and can display to a monitor, provide access to the Internet, and support a World Wide Web server. The students’ fields range from electrical engineering to computer science, so that as a group, they can address hardware and software or integration issues, Nina says.

Howard Hirano (16000) of the Advanced Concepts Group and Carmen have already briefed the students on a proposed device that will monitor a wearer’s health-and-safety status. Dubbed "My Friend," this computerized device, integrating both hardware and software, could track physiological measures such as pulse and heart rate, recognizing when the wearer (or health provider) should be aware that the wearer’s physiological condition warrants attention.

Ron will be briefing the interns on Bluetooth, an emerging new wireless technology that permits creation of networks between different devices, say, between a cell phone, a PDA, and a computer. The group will be developing a wireless distributed sensor network for collecting health sensor data using this new hardware/software standard.

"Bluetooth, initially developed by the Swedish cell phone company Ericsson, is an exciting and enabling technology for many new applications." Ron says, "and we’re going to play with it and find out what it can do."

Graduate students Katie Moor and Pippin Wolfe (both 8920), who are returning for their second summer at Sandia, along with graduate student Brian Lambert (8920), are looking at capturing and analyzing data from a fingertip oxygen sensor typically used in diagnostic monitoring. (Both sensors and a microprocessor could be wirelessly networked on the individual wearing them in a "personal area network.")

Three college-level students are also in the program this summer: Eric Burns, Stephen Elliott, and Chris Kershaw (all 8920). Working alongside them is Hillary Davis (8920), a student who is entering her senior year of high school and participated in the Sandia Go Figure math contest. She was also an outstanding achievement winner this year in the Sandia Women’s Committee Math/Science Awards.

The interdisciplinary approach is intended to provide an R&D incubator so students can combine skills to produce solutions to a collection of innovative projects provided by their Sandia mentors.

For instance, Nina has a particular interest in artificial intelligence, software that learns and can function through the activity of programmed entities called agents.

"There’s an exciting potential for software advancements using artificial intelligence techniques like neural networks and agent-based networks to recognize abnormalities and patterns for sensor interpretation," Nina says. "We want to ask, "What kind of intelligence can we add to this reasoning?"

The culmination of these summer activities will be the establishment of future projects in sensor and IT (information technology) research that will attract potential employees for Sandia’s future.