Volcanic Study the Wireless Way

By Adam Stone

July 30, 2002

The monitoring of active volcanoes in Chile using WLAN technologies may say a lot about how enterprise IT all over the world should be embracing 802.11.

Wireless offices? Sure.

Wireless volcanoes? Well...why not?

Scientists and academicians in Chile have set up an outdoor, point-to-multi-point wireless network in order to provide remote education to 60 of the nation's high schools. Now they are looking to expand that network in an effort to monitor two of the world's most active volcanoes. They want to use 802.11 to provide early warning of potential eruptions.

"This shows that 802.11 technology is only limited by your imagination and what you are willing to do," said Jeff Manning, business manager with Agere ORiNOCO, whose outdoor routers are included in the Chilean network. "In an environment like that, a technology that tells you what you need to know not just for scientific reasons but also for safety reasons can be very useful to say the least."

The University of La Frontera (UFRO) in Temuco, Chile and the Universidad Técnica Federico Santa Marma (UTFSM) in Valparamso, Chile already have established a network between themselves and numerous other educational institutions, in a first step toward the proposed volcano study.

The network is the brainchild of Razl Burgos Viveros, associate professor of electronic engineering at UFRO, and Walter Grote, professor of electronic engineering at UTFSM.

To provide security for the new network, Burgos set up a RADIUS (remote authentication dial-in user service) server at UFRO. That server provides high levels of wireless network security by validating every PC Card before it can log-on to the network.

With security assured, the team turned to connectivity issues. While Temuco's relatively flat topography made it fairly easy to build out a wireless network at UFRO, the mountainous landscape of Valparaiso presented challenges. Grote and his engineering team needed more than a single access point, and thus they installed one ORiNOCO Central Outdoor Router (COR) and three ORiNOCO Remote Outdoor Routers (ROR) around the city.

The COR/ROR system provides high-speed fixed wireless point-to-multi-point networking in the 2.4 GHz band. Each COR/ROR has a 10/100 Base-T Ethernet port for connecting to a wired network and is capable of achieving a data rates as high as 11Mbps. Each ROR-COR link has a range of up to approximately 16 miles, and provides 128-bit RC4 encryption, MAC Address control, and System Access Pass Phrase.

With the wireless network infrastructure in place at each university, the research team then installed a wireless PC Card into desktop computers at each of 60 high schools, along with Linux software that enables each PC to function as both a bridge and a router to the university's wired networks.

"Installation was simple and quick," said Burgos. "The most difficult part was planning the placement of the CORs and RORs in order to maximize range and throughput. After that, it was a piece of cake, and we haven't had any problems since."

Students at each school can use the wireless network to watch videos and educational conferences broadcast from the two universities. They can also access educational videos available through the university's intranets.

Volcano Project

With the wireless point-to-multi-point network in place, the research team has begun to seek funding for its volcano project, wherein it hopes to keep tabs on seismic activity near and around the highly unstable Llaima and Villarica volcanoes in the Andes Mountains.

As envisioned by the scientists, special sensors will be buried deep into the ground near these volcanoes. The sensors will monitor seismic activity such as earthquakes near the volcanoes. The also will keep an eye out for changes in the formation of the Earth's surface, by measuring the location of certain points of land over time.

The sensors contain an analog-to-digital electronic converter that will transfer data gathered via an Ethernet port. Hosted in special ruggedized boxes near the volcanoes, the sensors will be connected to a basic desktop computer, which in turn will be connected to a special Internet Protocol camera with a USB port. The PC will then transfer data about volcanic activity from the sensor and the IP camera to researchers back at UFRO via the long-distance wireless link.

This project should enable researchers to monitor and study the volcanoes without having to physically go on site. If all goes as planned, scientists also will be able to warn the public of potentially disastrous volcanic activity, enabling people to evacuate in advance of an eruption.

While most enterprise users in the United States are not too active in the field of vulcanology, analysts say the Chilean project still has profound implications for enterprise IT managers and others with an interest in developments related to the 802.11 protocol.

"This shows the magnitude of creativity and expansion in the 802.11 marketplace," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing with analysis firm Gartner.

"These are good signs of a healthy 802.11 marketplace," he explained. "It says that the standard is doing its job. It is providing a lot of interoperability and bringing costs down, and that is good. It shows that the 802.11 market is really here and is really viable."

For those who have adopted 802.11, this reaffirms the wisdom of their choices. For those who have not yet taken the plunge, "this is a warning sign to IT that you have to embrace the technology," he said. "Every time IT tries to avoid something they get burned, and every time they embrace it and recognize that it is here, they have a much more positive scenario."

If Chilean researchers already are using 802.11 to watch volcanoes from a distance, he suggested, IT professionals in the United States had better heed the call.

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