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Boston Environmental Area Coastal Observation Network (BEACON)
Stretching electronic skin across Massachusetts Bay
The skin is a smart piece of engineering. Interfacing with the environment, it processes immense amounts of data and triggers the body's responses to changes in pressure, temperature, and light.

Neponset River Sensor Network

The earth is beginning to don electronic skin. Every day, it is being stitched together across the planet. It consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices or sensors. It uses the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its information, about the atmosphere, ecosystem health and the environment. And when the earth's electronic skin signals a change, the network alerts people, and even takes action.

In just a few years, there will be 10,000 sensors for every human being on the planet, according to a Business Week forecast.

Electronic skin for Massachusetts Bay is being stitched together by scientists at UMass Boston under the leadership of Dr. Robert Chen, Environmental, Earth and Ocean Sciences, professor, so that surfers, swimmers, and fishermen are alerted to dangerous bacterial levels in the water, unusual environmental conditions, or predictions of rising seas. These scientists envision forecasts of beach conditions delivered on demand to mobile handsets.

Chen’s Center for Coastal Environmental Sensing Networks is unique in its development of underwater sensor networks, thus crossing the land-water interface, in focusing on “smart” networks, networks that are not simply automated, but can also shift attention to objects and events of interest, and in applying networks to urban environments.

Dr. Deborah Estrin, a professor of computer science at UCLA, speculates that mobile phones, carried by billions, will sense the sounds and smells of the city for cultural or environmental purposes, or even to determine your personal environmental impact. She calls this participatory urban sensing, everyday mobile phones becoming a platform for widespread public participation in data collection and dissemination. Her UCLA Center for Embedded Networked Sensing‘s urban sensing group is initiating projects to introduce these technologies into the public realm. She believes these systems promise to become a very effective ‘make a case’ technology to address a range of civic concerns, from public health to safety and sustainability.

Estrin delivered keynote remarks at a conference organized in April 2007 by the Center for Coastal Environmental Sensing Networks about how improved data gathering by wireless observatories will make it possible to see conditions that were once essentially invisible.

“Remote sensing with many sensors in the environment is pretty new, and no one’s really done a large effort in the coastal oceans,” said Chen. The case for the university being the only feasible site to plant the seeds for a digital hook-up of the physical world is strong. " By having science drive the technology, we’re able to make leaps in understanding, but these innovative strategies are not yet commercially viable for investors," according to Chen.

With a grant by the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center, his team is developing an inexpensive and more accurate sensor to detect total bacteria. The inventors of the sensor are Drs. Robert Chen, Michael Shiaris, Steven Rudnick and Francesco Peri.

Developing and embedding sensors is one challenge, but integrating ever greater numbers of observations, analyzing the results, and developing models to forecast is another. Chen’s colleagues Drs. Mingshun Jiang and Meng Zhou have already developed a forecasting system for Massachusetts Bay, including temperature, salinity, sea level and circulation.