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NSF's Sensor and Sensor Network Program

The National Science Foundation's Sensor and Sensor Networks program began in 2003 with first-year funding of $47 million. The NSF's Engineering Directorate has collected some highlights of the research done to date.

The most recent solicitation, or call for proposals, in the program includes this background:

"In recent years, sensor research has been undergoing a quiet revolution, promising to have significant impact on a broad range of applications relating to national security, health care, the environment, energy, food safety, and manufacturing. The convergence of the Internet, communications, and information technologies with techniques for miniaturization has placed sensor technology at the threshold of a period of major growth. Emerging technologies can decrease the size, weight and cost of sensors and sensor arrays by orders of magnitude, and increase their spatial and temporal resolution and accuracy. Large numbers of sensors may be integrated into systems to improve performance and lifetime, and decrease life-cycle costs. Communications networks provide rapid access to information and computing, eliminating the barriers of distance and time for telemedicine, transportation, detecting toxic agents, recording spatial and temporal variations in environmental parameters, and monitoring the security of civil and engineering infrastructures. New geophysical/geochemical sensor networks will permit more effective monitoring of volcanic or seismic activity, severe wind patterns, and the health of the atmosphere and earth's subsurface. The coming years will likely see a growing reliance on and need for more powerful sensor systems, with increased performance and functionality.

Some needs for new sensors and sensor systems include (1) the ability to respond to new toxic chemicals, explosives and biological agents, (2) enhanced sensitivity, selectivity, speed, robustness, and fewer false alarms, and (3) the ability to function unattended and autonomously in unusual/extreme/complex environments. These needs can be addressed by the design and synthesis of functionalized receptors and materials resulting in next-generation devices. The materials may be of varying porosity enabling them to detect single toxic compounds in complex mixtures, or physical configurations that have surfaces with microchannels for microfluidic discrimination. Genomic tools may be incorporated to aid in characterizing ecological changes in aquatic and terrestrial environments. The full battery of advanced biological, chemical and materials research can be brought to bear on this challenge, including the design of functional nano- and meso-scale complex structures. Robustness under anticipated manufacturing schemes is required. Sensor arrays are of interest in this regard. Quantification of sensor data including limits of detection, calibration, interferences, sampling and verification of accuracy also needs to be considered.

Miniaturization, manufacture, cost and power consumption are also issues. Integration of sensors, processors, energy sources, and the communications network interface on a chip would facilitate the exchange of sensor data and critical information with the outside world. Information extraction may involve detection of events or objects of interest, estimation of key parameters, and human-in-the-loop or closed-loop adaptive feedback. Arrays of ultra low-power wireless nodes may be incorporated in high-bandwidth reconfigurable networks with high-speed connectivity to processing centers for decision and responsive action.

Sensing principles include but are not limited to mechanical, chemical, thermal, electrical, chromatographic, magnetic, biological, fluidic, optical, acoustic, ultrasonic, and mass sensing. Sensors may be exposed to hostile environments. They may be incorporated in mobile robotic systems, stationary platforms, or into manufacturing systems. Their environment may include high temperatures, high pressure, high vibration, high noise, or corrosive chemicals. In biological systems, the sensors themselves must not adversely affect the system or organism. The technology for sensing and control now has the potential for significant advances, with profound benefits for society.

To meet future societal needs, it will be necessary for sensor systems to leverage and incorporate projected advances in adjacent technologies, such as nanofabrication, biosystems, massively distributed networks, ubiquitous computing, broadband wireless communications, and information and decision systems.

Successful invention of low-cost, robust, miniaturized sensors and detection equipment such as mass spectrometers and chromatographs will be of benefit to the scientific education community. Education projects about sensors have the potential to attract students to a fruitful interdisciplinary area with clear societal benefits. The area has the potential to help build a diverse scientific workforce.

Recent NSF workshop reports at http://www.chemistry.gatech.edu/sensingforum-02 and http://www.ce.berkeley.edu/Programs/Geoengineering/sensors discuss projected sensor needs."

The Sensor Revolution A Special Report