New UCLA centre will arm urban territories

A new research centre at UCLA aims, among other things, to enable buildings to ‘detune’ during earthquakes to prevent collapse and to create water supplies that know when they are being tampered with.

Buildings that ‘detune’ themselves during an earthquake to prevent collapse, and water systems that automatically detect sabotage and isolate the danger are among the possible future breakthroughs to be pioneered by a new UCLA research centre intended to create a new generation of wireless sensing technologies.

The centre – dubbed the Centre for Embedded Networked Sensing – will receive up to $40 million over the next 10 years from the US National Science Foundation.

Embedded networked sensing systems will use sensors and actuators, which can be densely distributed within a natural or man-made environment to monitor and collect information on such subjects such as plankton colonies, endangered species, contaminants in soil and air, aeroplane wings or artificial structures.

‘This technology will help us connect the physical world just as the Internet has allowed us to connect the world of computers,’ said Deborah Estrin, a UCLA computer science professor who will direct the centre. ‘Not only will we be able to collect information not available before, but this will allow us to design systems to automatically take action once a pollutant, structural failure or other hazard is detected.’

Initially the centre will concentrate on developing the fundamental technology to create the sensor networks. To make sure that the networks will be able to operate without constant human supervision, researchers will focus on developing devices that can organise themselves into a network, repair themselves and manage their own power consumption.

Then computer scientists and engineers will apply the networks in four physical areas: the environment and its biological diversity, earthquake-prone structures, pollutant flows through water and land, and detection and identification of tiny organisms that contaminate oceans and coastal waters.

Estrin said these application areas represent critical quality-of-life issues, particularly in dense urban areas.

The centre’s earthquake project includes broadening a network of earthquake monitors installed in a 17-story building on the UCLA campus. The Factor Building, home to the UCLA School of Nursing and medical research laboratories, is already the most heavily instrumented structure in North America as a result of a network installed several years ago by the US Geological Survey.

By developing a new generation of sensors that can be embedded into the structure, researchers hope to be able to learn more about how steel-frame buildings react during earthquakes.

The advance information that the Centre for Embedded Networked Sensing will produce could be used to ‘detune’ buildings to avoid resonance with seismic radiation, which toppled high-rise buildings in the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, said Monica Kohler, a UCLA seismologist who is helping to lead the project.

Urbanisation is said to have had a major effect on local ecologies and the technologies developed at the Centre for Embedded Networked Sensing will allow rapid and low-cost mapping of species diversity, ecosystem structure and environmental change.

In addition, the centre hopes to change the monitoring of contaminant flow through soil, water and air. This technology will provide critical tools for industry and offer valuable means of assessing health impacts, the researchers said.