VANCOUVER – A NASA-funded network of smart sensors deployed by WSU holds promise for space exploration, military applications and management of crises such as mine collapse and terrorist attack.
WSU researchers led by WenZhan Song, assistant professor of computer science at WSU Vancouver, have begun launching the spider-like sensors to monitor and predict activities in and around the crater of Mount St. Helens. Over the next several months, about 15 sensors will be installed and tested in the mountain’s harsh environmental conditions.
Unique capabilities
While there have been monitoring systems on Mount St. Helens for many years, the smart sensors are unique in that they can prioritize data. If the mountain starts erupting, for example, the sensors could make emission data, rather than seismic, their top priority.
The sensors communicate with each other, as well as with the central hub at the Mount St. Helens visitor center. The system can repair itself if a communication link is blocked. The sensors could provide their information to overhead satellites.
The project is intended as a proof of concept, Song said. Researchers hope the work leads to better natural hazards monitoring and mitigation.
“We can provide timely information for policy makers, so they can make decisions quickly,’’ he said.
Other applications could include military sensors, mining safety and satellite monitoring of harsh planetary environments during space exploration.
 
Collaboration funded
In 2006, the researchers received a $1.6 million NASA grant to design and develop the sensor network system. A multidisciplinary team — WSU, the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the U.S. Geological Survey volcano observatory at Mount St. Helens — developed the prototype. Both WSU Vancouver and WSU Pullman participated.
“The project received enormous support from both the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and from WSU Vancouver’s School of Engineering and Computer Science,’’ said Song. “It shows a good example of campus collaborations.”
The core component of each sensor is “smaller than a cell phone,’’ said Song. It is placed in a waterproof metal box containing batteries, which is mounted on skinny, metal legs.
 
Observatory looks at move to campus
WSU Vancouver and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cascades Volcano Observatory (CVO) are pursuing relocating the observatory onto campus from leased office space.
University officials and government scientists have been discussing the move for about a year, but funding — approximately $20 million — is expected to be difficult, especially with the economic downturn.
Benefits could include enhanced partnerships, new academic disciplines and increased prestige for the school’s science program.