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Seeing SPOTs

Sun Microsystems researcher Arshan Poursohi reflects on the higher edresearch potential for Sun SPOT wireless sensors, now totally open source.

The following article, "Sun SPOTs Go Open Source", ran onour website on Feb. 13, 2008.

Seeing SPOTs

SUN'S POURSOHI: 'If you can dream it up, you can probably attack it with a Sun SPOT.'

EARLIER THIS YEAR, Sun Microsystems announced that it would open source both thehardware and operating system for Sun SPOTs, its sensor networking product basedon Java technology. Campus Technology talked withArshan Poursohi, a staff researcher in the Sun SPOT labon Sun's Menlo Park, CA, campus, to find out how highereducation institutions can incorporate Sun SPOTs inresearch and instruction.

CT: What is Sun's kit for Sun SPOTs?
Poursohi: It's a development kit for wireless sensor development based on Java. There are lots of Java developers out there, and a lot of interesting applications in the wireless sensor network space. Bringing those two together will really ramp up developers who are doing wireless and embedded research, as well as give Java developers another avenue of attack for what they're coding.

What are some examples of how Sun SPOTs are already being used?
You can put them into buildings to monitor temperature conditions, for instance, so you can fine-tune the air conditioning and heating. You can deploy them on volcanoes and see what the eruption conditions are in a flow from top to bottom, so you can see what happens as a volcano is beginning to erupt. Robotics is another example. The embedded computer is so small-- and powerful enough-- that it now can do a lot of really diverse tasks. So, if you can dream it up, you can probably attack it with a Sun SPOT.

Now that Sun is open sourcing both hardware and software for Sun SPOTs, what opportunities might there be for research and instruction in higher education?
Here in the labs, we've been working with higher education collaborators for ages. And when they can't open the code entirely, there's always a barrier because there's that bit of stuff that they can't change and must depend on the company for. Now we're open sourcing the entire stack: the Sun SPOT libraries, the Squawk JVM [Java Virtual Machine], and the hardware. University professors and students who are considering basing either curricula or research around this device now have access to everything. If you want to make modifications to the Java VM, you are able to do that. If you want to modify the hardware a little bit so that it fits your application better, or if you are just writing an application and you want to see what's going on under the covers, all of that's available now.

There are embedded computers everywhere:parking meters, door knobs, light switches.... As you get thishuge network of devices talking to each other, you cancome up with some really interesting applications.

Can you explain a little bit about the Sun SPOTs initiativein higher education?
Ever since the Sun SPOTs project started, we've noticed agreat amount of education interest in Sun SPOTs. We wantto build that community up, in the university, K-12, and inthe professional levels. But we're concentrating on the universities,because that's where a lot of research is done,and where a lot of existing wireless sensor network work isdone, along with robotics and things like that. So, we wantto build momentum in the community and make it such thatit sustains itself even if we're not there.

Could you give me a couple examples of the work higher education institutions within the US are already doing with Sun SPOTs?
One great example is Warren Wilson College [NC], which is working on a typical wireless sensor network deployment measuring values of water quality, soil, and other features of the Panamanian jungle. They started by deploying this at their local college-- they have a river there-- so they're doing a local version, as well as working with the Cocobolo Nature Reserve in Panama to deploy Sun SPOTs there. They're recording values back at their campus, so while the sensors are deployed in Panama, they are monitoring them and deploying code to them from the college in North Carolina.

Another interesting school is right next door to Warren Wilson: The University of North Carolina is doing a lot of autonomous robotics research and work with sensor networks as well.

Do you have any predictions about what kinds of things could be done in the future with Sun SPOTs?
Yes, we have lots of predictions! People talk about their use in cell phones, and there are billions of phones out there, with many people getting more than one. There's a limit to the market, but when you talk about embedded computers, it's trillions. And there are embedded computers everywhere: parking meters, door knobs, light switches, and you've got hundreds of them in your car, if not thousands. Plus the fact that as of the last decade or so, a lot of these devices are networked; they are not completely isolated anymore. So, as you get this huge network of devices talking to each other, you can come up with some really interesting applications.

Fleet tracking, for example, is a prime opportunity. That's putting GPS and cellular modems inside of trucks driving around the US. Now you can imagine, if you had sensors on those devices and they could talk to each other and pass information around, that would become an instant infrastructure. You could see where the trucks are going and how fast they're traveling, but if you added an accelerometer, then you'd know about road conditions such as where all the potholes are. If you added a temperature and humidity sensor, you could get a pretty credible weather map of the US, refreshed at a rate that's not even considered now.

So, all these embedded computers are going to start talking to each other. You'll walk into rooms that already know how you like the temperature; you'll get into a brand-new car that you've never been in before and it will know how you like your seat adjusted. We're talking about the internet of things, and machine-to-machine communications.

I imagine Sun is very interested in seeing what other kinds of ideas might come out of universities.
It's just amazing. You put some of these devices out there, and every person has different ideas, based on his or her own interests. And I'll say that, given all those trillions of devices, Sun is also interested, from a commercial point of view, in seeing that all the developers are using Java. That's the case we're making: that the wireless sensor networking environment is ready for a higher-level language that is easier to use, and that Java is the right choice.

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