Wednesday, October 8

When A Tree Falls In The Forest... Now We Will Know

A clever new MIT technology taps into tree power to provide an early warning system to alert us to dangerous tinder conditions in the forest

If forest sensors existed, they could warn of forest fires and especially dry, dangerous conditions. But forests are typically short on electronic gadgetry and sockets for plugging in such electronic warning devices.

Needed: a low tech solution.

It has been common knowledge among scientists that trees produce extremely small amounts of electricity, and this idea puts this 'natural electricity' to use.

MIT researchers have devised a tree-powered sensor system to send us much needed forest fire warnings, by tapping into the trees own natural power supply for the juice.

Each tree selected to become the neighborhood sentry will be fitted with a contraption that plugs into the tree's tiny electricity supply. Each sensor in the MIT system will be equipped with a battery.

But that battery will be very slowly recharged using electricity naturally generated over a very long period by the tree itself, "just like a dripping faucet can fill a bucket over time," said Shuguang Zhang, one of the researchers on the project and the associate director of MIT's Center for Biomedical Engineering.

Four times every day, or on demand during emergencies such as forest fires, signals will be transmitted wirelessly to let the US Forest Service know the temperature and humidity readouts of trees deep in forests. Each signal will hop from one sensor to another, until it reaches an existing weather station that beams the data by satellite to a forestry command center in Boise, Idaho.

Remote automated weather stations are already among the variety of tools the Forest Service uses to predict and track fires. But these stations are expensive and hence, sparsely distributed. Manually recharging or replacing batteries at often very hard-to-reach locations makes it impractical and costly to monitor any forest area as well as it should be.

The many additional sensors would provide much more detailed local climate data to be used in fire prediction models and earlier alerts. When trees become tinder-dry they start loosening their grip in the soil. This subtle movement would also be registered along with humidity and temperature readouts.

Next Spring, the first field testing of the wireless sensor network, which is being developed by MIT spinoff VoltreePower, will begin on a 10-acre plot of land provided by the Forest Service.


For Matter Network