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Thoreau
A wireless sensing network for agriculture and the environment

In the 1850s, the late Henry David Thoreau, an American naturalist and land surveyor, among many things, became one of the first naturalists to collect data and keep detailed records over months and years of the microclimate and vegetation in the region around his town of Concord, Massachusetts for 24 years. Among many things, Thoreau monitored how the fruit of trees ripened, when frost occurred, noted the flowering dates for hundreds of trees and how the water levels of ponds fluctuated over time in the hopes of being able to predict the seasons, the growth of forests and the ways of nature. He walked the woods for hours every day, collected specimens for his botany box, and made detailed journal entries of his observations at the end of each day. As his experimental leanings shifted his writings from the philosophical to the scientific, he wrote in 1851:“I fear, that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific — that, in exchange for views as wide as heaven's cope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope.” His influential essay, “The Succession of Forest Trees”, the first explanation of how forests regrow via seeds carried by wind, water and animals, arose from such detailed observations. Thoreau was a pioneer in that he brought a data intensive approach to environmentalism.

Over a hundred and fifty years after Thoreau, developments in sensors and wireless technologies, microelectronics, data science and the emergence of the Cloud are making it increasingly feasible to collect vast amounts of environmental data at high spatial and time resolutions over large geographical regions. Monitoring the land and large water bodies in this unprecedented manner using sensor networks has the potential to deeply impact environmental science, soil and plant science, and agriculture. This in turn, impacts food security, human health, and ecology. It is in this mindset that the Guha group at the University of Chicago explores sensor networks, for water—to measure water pollution and its impact on human health in Indian rivers; and for land, using a fully buried wireless subterranean sensor network on campus at the University of Chicago.

On the technology side, our focus is on building end-to-end system where distributed sensing data is wireless transmitted to and curated on the Cloud. Our testbeds serve as neutral benchmarking site to test various components, and to establish scalability and affordability. On the science side, working with researchers at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at Argonne, we explore new nanoscale materials, functionalization techniques and devices that can sense critical parameters such as dissolved nitrates in soil, volume averaged soil moisture, and e. coli content in water. All of our data is open data, and freely downloadable.