System Bits: Oct. 15

Talking cars; micro water sensors.


Improving safety with talking vehicles
Researchers at USC Viterbi have spent nearly a decade working on algorithms and software to make it possible for cars to “talk” to one another by sending messages through an ad hoc wireless network to alert drivers of impending dangers such as potholes and icy roads to prevent accidents, injuries and the accompanying traffic jams. It’s all about having information at the right time at the right place.

The researchers envision a system whereupon sensors in vehicles would alert internal computers of potential trouble. The computers would then process the information about potholes, icy roads and the like, which would be shared with nearby vehicles over radio waves.

Drivers heading toward the dangers would receive a warning, perhaps a light on the dashboard or a vocal prompt. The advanced notice would allow commuters to avoid problems ahead, and to prevent drivers from being inundated with messages, the team has designed algorithms that would aggregate warnings to limit the number commuters receive. Other algorithms could determine how long and where such alerts would be disseminated. Temporary peer-to-peer networks wouldn’t burden the already stretched existing cellular networks.

In addition to the safety implications, this temporary network of clustered cars has entertainment value. With vehicle-to-vehicle communication, a car could use the network to download a movie or videogame for passengers and then share it with nearby automobiles. Further, a vehicle could theoretically learn its users’ tastes and preferences and automatically download relevant content based on that profile.

The U.S. Department of Transportation and several car manufacturers are currently conducting similar research on vehicle-to-vehicle communication, although the the technology may not appear in cars on a large scale for at least another decade.

One technical challenge is security. Hackers might compromise peer-to-peer networks and spread false and possibly even dangerous information to drivers. This is something that car companies and academic researchers are still working to address. Additionally, there is a business challenge for car companies in figuring out whether they want to become first-movers in the space.

Fleet vehicles, such as groups of cars or buses owned by businesses or the government, may lead the way because it’s easier to manage deployments and upgrades. For a vehicle-to-vehicle system to operate efficiently and successfully, the researchers believe about 10,000 cars in Los Angeles must be equipped with the technology.

Micro water sensor can aid growers
Crop growers, wine grape and other fruit growers, food processors and even concrete makers all benefit from water sensors for accurate, steady and numerous moisture readings. But current sensors are large, may cost thousands of dollars and often must be read manually. But now, Cornell researchers have developed a microfluidic water sensor within a fingertip-sized silicon chip that they say is a hundred times more sensitive than current devices. The researchers are now completing soil tests and will soon test their design in plants, embedding their “lab on a chip” in the stems of grape vines, for example. They hope to mass produce the sensors for as little as $5 each.

In soil or when inserted into a plant stem, the chip is fitted with wires that can be hooked up to a card for wireless data transmission or is compatible with existing data-loggers. Chips may be left in place for years, though they may break in freezing temperatures. Such inexpensive and accurate sensors can be strategically spaced in plants and soil for accurate measurements in agricultural fields.

For example, sophisticated vintners use precise irrigation to put regulated water stress on grapevines to create just the right grape composition for a premium cabernet or a chardonnay wine. While growers can use the sensors to monitor water in soils for their crops, civil engineers can embed these chips in concrete to determine optimal moisture levels as the concrete cures.

One of their goals is to try and develop something that is not only a great improvement, but also much cheaper for growers and others to use.

The sensors make use of microfluidic technology – developed by Abraham Stroock, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Cornell – that places a tiny cavity inside the chip. The cavity is filled with water, and then the chip may be inserted in a plant stem or in the soil where it, through a nanoporous membrane, exchanges moisture with its environment and maintains an equilibrium pressure that the chip measures.

Using chips embedded in plants or spaced across soil and linked wirelessly to computers, for example, growers may control the precise moisture of blocks of land, based on target goals.

Vinay Pagay, who helped develop the chip as a Cornell doctoral student holds a "lab on a chip" that measures moisture levels in soil and can be embedded in plant stems for accurate information on water stress. The researchers hope to mass produce the chips for as little as $5 each. (Source: Cornell University)

Vinay Pagay, who helped develop the chip as a Cornell doctoral student holds a “lab on a chip” that measures moisture levels in soil and can be embedded in plant stems for accurate information on water stress. The researchers hope to mass produce the chips for as little as $5 each. (Source: Cornell University)


The researchers want to understand how values gathered from sensors inside a plant and in soils relate to plant growth and function, so that growers can translate sensor values and optimize management.