Spinout comes ‘home’ for help with wireless sensor network enhancements

1 November 2011

Their original military application having expanded to include myriad industrial and commercial uses, wireless sensor networks are a dynamic research area where enhancements are constantly being sought. UCL spinout Senceive, whose product FlatMesh enables lots of tiny sensors to be positioned discreetly over a densely-packed area, needed the university’s expertise and equipment to test proposed developments to its system.

HELO asked Fei Qin and Dr Manoj Thakur of UCL’s Department of Electronic Engineering to carry out an evaluation of the technology’s capabilities and submit a detailed report to the client. Fei says the commercial experience adds much to his extensive academic knowledge.

Senceive British Museum

Imagine you are the British Museum, and you need to ensure that volatile chemicals from priceless objects are not damaging others; or the Tower of London, and you have to monitor damp penetration in the thick ancient walls. The solution would be FlatMesh, a cost-effective product which enables lots of tiny sensors to be positioned discreetly over a densely-packed area in a radio network where units talk to each other rather than a central point. This self-organising sensor network is the brainchild of Senceive, a UCL spinout formed in 2006.

When Senceive needed proposed developments to the system to be technically evaluated and tested, it returned to its old stamping ground, UCL’s Department of Electronic Engineering. The company approached the HELO team who put them in touch with Fei Qin, a PhD student, and Dr Manoj Thakur, a Research Fellow, both with knowledge and experience in the area of wireless sensor networks.

“We are constantly looking to improve the technology,” explains Simon Maddison, Chief Operating Officer at Senceive. “We had developed a new platform that we believed would significantly enhance the stability of FlatMesh and we wanted to find out whether our hunch was correct before incorporating it into the existing product. We needed not only the expertise to be found at UCL, but also its equipment and facilities.”

Over two months, the students carried out a detailed evaluation of the technology’s capabilities and delivered regular progress reviews, culminating in a summary report which had a key input into the new development (the findings are, for now, confidential).

Fei says: “In three years at UCL my experience of wireless sensors had been limited to academia. The Senceive assignment gave me a taste of the actual requirements of industry.” He intends to return home when he has completed his studies “In the UK the technology is more advanced but in China the applications are more wide-ranging.” Potential uses are as diverse as monitoring earthquake-hit areas for further slippage or preventing antiquities from being exposed to excess light.

Simon Maddison adds: “I think what the project added to Fei and Manoj’s expertise is the importance of developing a very clear business-oriented focus in terms of the issues to be explored and the questions to be asked. Business is driven by pragmatism, especially small business, and I think this is a key difference between the theoretical and commercial worlds.”