I got a few questions about what I'm working on at my new job at Jožef Stefan Institute, so here's a short story about that.
Approximately a month and a half ago I joined the team working in the laboratory for wireless sensor networks, or SensorLab as people around here call it. They have been developing their own software and hardware for a year or so and have come up with a impressive collection of tools for gathering data from a large network of small sensor nodes.
At the core of their efforts was the VESNA platform, a wireless sensor network node with cute female name from Slavic mythology. It's a small, modular microcontroller system built around an ARM Cortex M3 chip from ST microelectronics. At the center is a core board with the CPU, non-volatile storage and power supply. Then there's a connector to the right that connects to one of a collection of radio modules that take care of different communication needs. Finally there's an Arduino-like general purpose shield connector on the top and bottom that can carry application-specific expansion modules, for instance with specialized hardware for sensors that cannot be served by the general purpose IO and instrumentation amplifiers on the core board.
When you are mounting hundreds of such boards in places that were never meant to carry any electronics, getting power to each sensor gets problematic very fast. So one of the main features of VESNA is power provisioning. In addition to requiring very little power to begin with, the core board carries a very versatile power supply that is capable of efficiently harvesting power from a solar cell or a range of external voltages. You can also connect a rechargeable battery to it and it will weather through nights or other power shortages.
Since you can't yet depend on having UTP cables at each and every place, communications are mostly based on radio (hence the wireless in wireless sensor networks). Radio boards are built around several multi-purpose chips that can use a number of regimes in the ISM bands, from proprietary schemes to IEEE 802.15.4, from star topology to mesh networks.
On the software side there's also a lot of interesting things happening. Guys and girls at SensorLab have been developing their own C library for VESNA peripherals, which you can use to compile and run bare-bones programs on the CPU. For simpler applications there's an Arduino compatibility in the works while heavier applications might use a port of the Contiki operating system, which allows you to access sensors through web-friendly REST interfaces on a 6LoWPAN network.
An the best part of it is, most of the things I described are going to be released under a free, open source license in the following year, since we are hoping to build a lively open hardware community around this project. The internet of things is the new buzzword you know and there are plenty of IPv6 addresses to go around. We think VESNA will help you make good use of at least a small part of them.