Dissertation Defense

Perpetual Sensing: Experiences With Energy-Harvesting Sensor Systems

Brad Campbell

Industry forecasts project the number of connected devices will outpace the global population by several orders of magnitude in the next decade or two. These projections are application driven: smart cities, implantable health monitors, responsive buildings, autonomous robotics, driverless cars, and instrumented infrastructure are all expected to be drivers for the growth of networked devices. Achieving this immense scale, where Internet of Things devices and pervasive sensors may number into the trillions, raises a host of challenges including operating system design, networking protocols, and orchestration methodologies. However, another critical issue may be the most fundamental: If embedded computers outnumber people by a factor of a thousand, how are we going to keep all of these devices powered?

In this dissertation, we show that energy-harvesting operation, by which devices scavenge energy from their surroundings to power themselves after they are deployed, is a viable answer to this question. In particular, we examine a range of energy-harvesting sensor node designs for a particular application: smart buildings. In this application setting, the devices must be small and sleek to be unobtrusively and widely deployed, yet shrinking the devices also reduces their energy budgets as energy storage often dominates their volume. Additionally, energy-harvesting introduces new challenges for these devices due to the intermittent harvesting that stems from relying on unpredictable ambient energy sources. To address these challenges, we present several techniques for realizing effective sensors despite the size and energy constraints. First is Monjolo, an energy metering system that exploits the variability in energy-harvesting by using the energy harvester itself as the sensor. Building on Monjolo, we show how simple time synchronization and an application specific sensor can enable accurate building-scale submetering while remaining energy-harvesting. We also show how energy-harvesting can be the foundation for highly deployable power metering. These sensors, along with other indoor monitoring sensors that decouple harvesting from sensing, a generic and reusable gateway platform, and an application-layer cloud service, form an easy-to-deploy building sensing toolkit that enables deployment scales and sensor lifetimes not achievable with battery powered devices.

Sponsored by

Prabal Dutta