Fe e l i n g t h e HEAT
Students take on the challenge of
developing a wireless system to monitor
Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs
By Tim Stephens engineering, advised the group over a temperature range from
jacob lowenstern, usgs
of eight students who tackled boiling hot to well below freez-
avid Munday and Matthew Minolli the project. They also had ing. And, of course, the system
could have graduated last June with help from several other faculty, couldn’t be too costly.
degrees in computer engineering. Instead, including lecturer Stephen “A lot of effort went into
they got so wrapped up in their senior Petersen and associate profes- micromanaging the system
design project they decided to stay at UCSC sor of computer engineering so it would use as little power
for a fifth year as undergraduates so they could see Roberto Manduchi. as possible and still meet the
the project through to completion. By the end of After brainstorming and specifications,” Minolli says.
this year, they hope to have their wireless sensor coming up with a plan, the The system uses a sophis-
network deployed in Yellowstone National Park by students organized themselves ticated networking protocol,
the scientists who track one of the world’s largest into two groups: Minolli led a thanks to Obraczka’s exper-
active volcanic systems. group working on the wireless tise in wireless networking.
Munday and Minolli led a team of six other stu- communication system, while Transmissions from a unit that is
dents that won top honors in the Baskin School of Munday’s group focused on the out of range of the base station
Engineering’s first Senior Design Project Contest in digital controller for handling can be relayed by other units.
June 2006. Like many senior projects tackled by UCSC data from the temperature sen- The base station monitors bat-
engineering students, theirs was proposed by an out- sors. The other UCSC students tery power in all the units and A researcher collects samples at a hydrothermal site in Yellowstone National Park.
side group that had a real-world problem in need of an involved in the project were dynamically reconfigures the
engineering solution. In this case, the proposal came Tim Jones, Khi Lam, Paul network to minimize the load Three students—Munday, “I’ve been impressed by
from Jacob Lowenstern, a research geologist for the U.S. Schooss, Tony Hutter, Jason on units that are low on power. Minolli, and Rhodewalt— how dedicated these students
Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park, who oversees Rhodewalt, and Yiping Chen. “In June, we had the digital worked on the project over the are at trying to come up
the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. Their system, designed to controller finished but we were summer under a USGS con- with something that meets
Yellowstone’s world-famous geysers, hot springs, send temperature data back to still working on the long-range tract. Minolli and Munday are our needs,” Lowenstern says.
and other hydrothermal (hot water) features are fueled the base station once a day, also radio module, so we used now continuing their work as “They faced significant techni-
by heat released from a huge underground reservoir of allows scientists to log on via the an off-the-shelf radio system an independent-study project. cal obstacles that they’ve been
molten rock. The observatory, created in 2001 by the Internet and ask for data from that had shorter range but “I not only felt that we had a working through with a lot of
USGS, Yellowstone National Park, and the University any site at any time. The system allowed us to demonstrate the responsibility to see this through, enthusiasm.”
of Utah, tracks activity that could lead to hazardous also informs researchers of any networking protocol and show but I also really liked doing it,” Yellowstone National Park
seismic, hydrothermal, or volcanic events in the region. problems that crop up in the that it works,” Munday says. Minolli said. “I plan to study will ultimately decide whether
Temperature measurements are an important part field units. But what makes the Lowenstern was sufficiently wireless communications in the students’ system gets
of the overall monitoring effort, but the observatory system unique is its ability to impressed to provide addi- graduate school, and I figured deployed. But Lowenstern says
needs a more reliable and efficient system for gather- operate within the constraints tional funding so the students the best way to prepare is to keep the park geologist has been
ing temperature data, Lowenstern says. of the national park setting. could continue their work. working on this project.” very enthusiastic about the
“Right now we use data loggers that sit there and “Yellowstone is under a project, which bodes well for
gather data for weeks or months, and then someone lot of pressure to minimize its being accepted by the park.
has to go out into the field, download the data, and environmental and aesthetic Like many senior projects tackled And if that falls through for
transfer it to a computer. Sometimes the instruments impacts, so relay stations, some reason, Munday says the
break, and they might even break a week into their de-
ployment, in which case we wouldn’t know until two
solar panels, and big anten-
nas are really frowned upon,”
by UCSC engineering students, the design is flexible enough for
use in a wide range of other
months later when we go back and find we don’t have Lowenstern said. applications.
any data,” he says. The monitoring units in the proposal came from an outside group “We’ve already had inquiries
His challenge to the UCSC students was to come field had to be unobtrusive and from other potential clients,” he
up with a wireless system that could monitor hundreds use very little power to prolong says. “It’s a unique and versatile
of sites throughout the park and feed temperature data battery life, while providing that had a real-world problem in system that you can connect to
back to a central computer at park headquarters. long-range radio transmissions. any kind of sensor and could use
Katia Obraczka, associate professor of computer David Munday (left), Matthew Minolli, and their award-winning wireless sensor system The units also had to operate need of an engineering solution. in a variety of industries.”
20 UC Santa Cruz Review / Spring 2007 UC Santa Cruz Review / Spring 2007 21