Our Emerging Reliance on Pervasive Sensing

Sensor networks are augmenting human intelligence for a complete, real-time view of a designated area.

IT is a debatable question whether people feel any safer now than they did three years ago. We are certainly more aware of the threats, but have our responses scaled with the threat?

We will never have enough people to monitor every weak point in our infrastructure. And when we do saturate areas with intensive human monitoring, as happened in early August in Washington, D.C., the process quickly becomes invasive, causes frustration, and slows down traffic and business. We have learned that people are not scaleable enough to be everywhere at all times. Moreover, terrorists have proven adept at using our own materials and resources against us, and our open society sees human surveillance as an additional threat. One major resource that is causing security concerns is the nation's chemical manufacturing plants.

There are 15,000 industrial facilities that use and store large quantities of hazardous chemicals, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Various reports by the Department of Homeland Security, Justice Department, General Accounting Office, U.S. Army's Surgeon General, and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control state these are attractive targets to terrorists and that their physical security is ineffective.

In addition, the liquids and gases used in U.S. manufacturing flow through 2.1 million miles of pipelines every day, and about a million loads of hazardous materials are transported around the country across more than 200,000 miles of highways, railroad track, and inland waterways.

Human monitoring is critical but has been proven to be insufficient. People get tired, make mistakes, and can't be scaled to the levels required by the massive U.S. industrial infrastructure. Their efforts must be augmented by pervasive sensing. Pervasive sensing consists of hundreds or even thousands of wireless sensors, all communicating across secure, self-healing, ad hoc networks. Pervasive sensing provides the eyes, ears, and noses that can never be adequately scaled with human measures. And pervasive sensing networks have a wide variety of industrial applications beyond monitoring workplace conditions and securing chemical plants from terrorism.

Ocean Drilling
This has always been challenging and as technologies develop to drill deeper, the hazards increase. Some of the world's thousands of offshore rigs are anchored to the sea floor, but more and more, they float on the surface, connected by flexible pipes to the oil below.

Common to all types of oil exploration and drilling methods is the fact it is a dirty, dangerous business that presents a uniquely hazardous environment for workers. In spite of extensive safety processes, the industry has had a long history of accidents.

When working offshore, workers are faced with many different factors that increase their exposure to injury. This exposure increases even more during travel to and from offshore rigs. Some of these potentially dangerous hazards are poor weather conditions, slippery metal decks, confined space entry work, and fatigue. There is also the threat of hydrogen sulfide gas, one of the most deadly hazards in the oil and gas industry. H2S is found in areas that are drilled for oil, caused mainly by desulfovibrio sulfide reducing bacteria.

In addition to being corrosive, H2S is also a very toxic and very flammable gas. H2S has a rotten egg smell, but at levels of 100 ppm it will paralyze the olfactory system, making it appear odorless. At levels above 700 ppm, H2S can kill instantly. Adding to the threat, H2S is heavier than air and can flow along the surface, where it becomes a potentially life-threatening hazard.

Given the hazards and potential for fatigue, human monitoring is not sufficient for worker safety, and single-unit monitoring does not go far enough. The dynamic environment of an offshore oil rig requires that a comprehensive picture of environmental quality is available at all times. This can be done easily with today's wireless gas detection technology. Lunchbox-sized units can be deployed and issued to work parties--providing local warnings and alarms, but also giving safety officers instant visibility to problems.

At first glance, casinos may not seem an intuitive example in leading-edge public venue security and monitoring. But from the earliest days, casinos have provided a "safe" place to play and have paid careful attention to activities on the gaming floor.

In the 2003 movie "The Cooler," William H. Macy played a "cooler," an employee who would wander around the floor and use his supposed bad luck to cool off a hot table and stop any winning streak. As a human monitor, he was rendered ineffective when he found love and his ability to cool suddenly disappeared.

Extensive video monitoring has been the standard for years. While it has been effective in stemming losses from theft and fraud, more must be done because casinos are now high-profile targets. Consider that casinos represent an obvious and seemingly easy target for terrorist organizations that see them as symbols of Western decadence.

In fact, during New Year's Eve celebrations in 2004, an estimated 270,000 people jammed the Las Vegas Strip and downtown's Fremont Street. They were monitored by about 2,600 police officers, more than 100 FBI agents, and 4,000 hotel security guards. On any given day, a casino on the Las Vegas Strip sees enormous foot traffic--tens of thousands of visitors per hour--and has hundreds or even thousands of occupied hotel rooms. The economic impact from a terrorist attack disrupting a business that brings in billions of dollars a year would be devastating.

Some casinos, such as the Venetian, have other attractions such as the Guggenheim Hermitage art exhibit, which is valued in the billions of dollars. Pervasive sensing has already been demonstrated to provide a non-visual level of security from unseen threats.

The Supply Chain
Global shipping is big news at the moment. Unfortunately, the news isn't good. While estimates vary, the general consensus is that less than 5 percent of all inbound containers to the United States are manually inspected. With 90 percent of all global shipping taking place by ocean routes and more than 13 million containers entering the United States in any given year, it's easy to see why "bribing the gatekeeper" to ignore an incorrect manifest at a foreign port may be particularly tempting.

Currently, 90 percent of world trade uses intermodal shipping containers, most of which go uninspected and unprotected. The economic potential of pervasive sensing on the supply chain is significant. Theft accounts for more than $10 billion of losses for cargo owners, and unreported losses may be just as high.

With pervasive sensing provided by wireless networks of sensors in shipping containers, a variety of threats can be detected and pre-empted. Wireless sensor packs can be outfitted to detect anything from radiation to cargo tampering and even the presence of humans at any point in the supply chain.

Public Venues
Aside from indoor venues such as casinos, buildings, and public transit systems, many outdoor public venues such as stadiums and parade routes also are tempting targets. Often, public venues are the sites of high-profile, densely packed events that are symbolic of American culture.

For example, since its inception 38 years ago, the Super Bowl has grown far beyond a football game to become the quintessential American media event. Last year's drew more than 70,000 attendees and over 135 million television viewers from around the world. At the event, ad hoc networks of wireless sensors enabled real-time data transmission with a base controller located up to 2 miles away from the detector.

Monitoring networks are widely used by public safety teams around the world. These first-generation, wireless, broadband, gas and radiation monitors are only beginning to show the potential for pervasive sensing.

Rapid Evolution
Effective occupational health monitoring is rapidly evolving. The technology now exists to "see" the atmospheric integrity of remote locations. The technologies involved are much more than simple fenceline monitoring or basic alarm systems; they are evolving at a much faster rate than other forms of personal protection.

Sensor networks are augmenting human intelligence for a complete, real-time view of a designated area, whether a chemical plant, an office building, an outdoor arena, a public transportation system, or even supply chain logistics. The combination of powerful sensors that are able to detect and aggregate multiple data streams with robust, stable mesh networks means occupational security personnel and industrial hygienists can have more, better, faster data.

With ever-increasing areas to monitor and increasing security requirements, mesh network-enabled sensors provide multiple data streams that are continuously reported without fatigue or mistake, around the clock, with sensitivities impossible by human beings.

This article originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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