A wireless WANDer around Dublin

11 Apr 2003

Dubliners are used to all kinds of strange sights around their city and the slightest addition seldom goes unnoticed. In the coming weeks and months, pedestrians and passengers travelling up and down Thomas St and Dame St will become accustomed to strange little boxes perched on traffic lights, lamp posts and phone boxes.

These strange little boxes represent an experiment in future wireless networking by a group of researchers at Trinity College Dublin’s (TCD) Distributed Systems Group (DSG) – to develop self-routing wireless networks – that has sparked the imaginations and gained the financial support of global technology giants Ericsson and Intel and will push the boundaries of Wi-Fi networks beyond what was previously imagined.

Aside from Intel and Ericsson, the Wireless Ad-hoc Network for Dublin (WAND) project has gained the support of Eircom, Dublin City Council and MediaLab Europe and will see the creation of a high-speed wireless network that will span the length of Thomas St and Dame St and will also cover Temple Bar and TCD.

The plan is to create a self-routing wireless data network that will ultimately serve gardaí, taxi drivers, bus drivers, car owners and ordinary internet users on laptops and personal digital assistants, providing them with up-to-the-second context- and location-specific information based on 802.11g networking standards. What’s new here? The difference about this network is that it will make use of various nodes and network access devices like personal digital assistants, phones and laptops to share the load on the network in such a way that any always-on device that is not currently being used by its owner can be used to help distribute vital information organically. The result? A high speed 54MB per second wireless network that can think for and manage itself.

Police can use the network to inform bus, car and taxi drivers of traffic blockages in specific locations and advise them on alternative routes. Ambulance drivers and fire brigades interacting with the network could arrange for traffic lights to ‘go green’ to enable them to get to emergency locations faster. And mobile workers travelling through the area can use the network to get instant wireless internet access or play interactive location-specific games using GPS.

The DSG was established in 1981 and has spawned notable IT success stories like Iona Technologies, Aurium, Wilde Technologies and Havok. Focusing on four key areas – middleware, ubiquitous computing, mobile computing and software engineering – the DSG is made up of six senior academics, five research assistants, 25 PhD students and 15-20 science graduates. The current budget for DSG is €500k and financing comes from research partners and sponsors such as Iona Technologies, Microsoft, Intel, Dublin City Council, the National Roads Authority and Enterprise Ireland.

According to researcher Stefan Weber, who works between the DSG and MediaLab Europe on the project, the idea is to create a large area data network where users can access and interact with the network ubiquitously. “Everything in the network – even the devices used to access the network – becomes a router. Everything becomes a network node and the idea is to transport data between these nodes. The result is a clever self-thinking network that can control everything from traffic lights to facilitate location-specific emergency services, computer games and internet access,” Weber says.

Over the coming month, between 30 and 40 nodes – self-powered black boxes kitted out with 802.11g Wi-Fi data cards and 30GB hard disk drives – will be deployed on lamp posts, traffic lights and on top of phone boxes all along Thomas St and Dame St as part of a wireless experiment that has Eircom, Ericsson and Intel excited about the possibilities. “The idea is to create a public wireless network that is inexpensive, easy to deploy and available everywhere, to everyone,” Weber says.

A great amount of the DSG’s work at present is based around Ireland’s road traffic systems and amongst some of the exciting projects is a plan supported by Dublin City Council to map and colour code the entire Dublin road network to get a real-time view of how busy traffic at any one time. Using the 300-400 SCATS (Sydney Co-ordinate Adaptive Traffic System) below surface sensors that are positioned at most traffic light junctions throughout Dublin to calculate the amount of traffic passing through, the plan is to create an intranet through which planners and vehicle owners can see for themselves which parts of the city are most congested. According to DSG researcher Ciaran Chambers the project is near completion. “The aim is to set the system up on a web server and allow people to get a real-time view of the city’s streets and plan their journeys accordingly.”

Another project under way is an ambitious inter-urban traffic system supported by the National Roads Authority whereby various systems ranging from GPS systems, Met Eireann’s 100 national weather sites as well as information on road works and other SCAT sensors in key towns and urban centres would be pulled together to give travellers real-time online estimates of how long it would take to travel between various locations. Anthony Harrington, who is looking after the project, explains: “People would be able to get a realistic view based on traffic, weather conditions and various human factors on how long it would take them to travel between locations such as Dublin to Kilkenny.”

Another researcher, Vinnie Reynolds, is developing sensor systems for the cars of the future in a project entitled Sentient Traffic, whereby cars on the road would be able share information intelligently among themselves and their drivers. “For example if there is low visibility, the car would be able to warn the driver on use of mirrors and road conditions. The idea is that the more sensors, the more aware the driver will be aware of his or her environment.” The information, he adds, could also be shared from car to car in a given area. “We have commenced work with Daimler Chrysler on developing intelligent, self-thinking cars of the future”, Reynolds explains. “As well as this Dublin City Council has set up a group to look at the area of next generation traffic systems called I-Transit, which will explore sharing of information across networks and from vehicle to vehicle.”