A Wireless Sensor Network (WSN) is a wireless network consisting of spatially distributed autonomous devices using sensors to monitor physical or environmental conditions. A WSN system incorporates a gateway that provides wireless connectivity back to the wired world and distributed nodes.

The wireless protocol you select depends on your application requirements. Some of the available standards include 2.4 GHz radios based on either IEEE 802.15.4 or IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) standards or proprietary radios, which are usually 900 MHz.

Components of a WSN Node

A WSN node contains several technical components. These include the radio, battery, microcontroller, analog circuit, and sensor interface. When using WSN radio technology, you must make important trade-offs. In battery-powered systems, higher radio data rates and more frequent radio use consume more power. Often three years of battery life is a requirement, so many of the WSN systems today are based on ZigBee due to its low-power consumption. Because battery life and power management technology are constantly evolving and because of the available IEEE 802.11 bandwidth, Wi-Fi is an interesting technology.

The second technology consideration for WSN systems is the battery. In addition to long life requirements, you must consider the size and weight of batteries as well as international standards for shipping batteries and battery availability. The low cost and wide availability of carbon-zinc and alkaline batteries make them a common choice.

To extend battery life, a WSN node periodically wakes up and transmits data by powering on the radio and then powering it back off to conserve energy. WSN radio technology must efficiently transmit a signal and allow the system to go back to sleep with minimal power use. This means the processor involved must also be able to wake, power up, and return to sleep mode efficiently.

Microprocessor trends for WSNs include reducing power consumption while maintaining or increasing processor speed. Much like your radio choice, the power consumption and processing speed trade-off are the key concern when selecting a processor for WSNs. This makes the x86 architecture a difficult option for battery-powered devices.

WSN Network Topologies

WSN nodes are typically organised in one of three types of network topologies. In a star topology, each node connects directly to a gateway. In a cluster tree network, each node connects to a node higher in the tree and then to the gateway, and data is routed from the lowest node on the tree to the gateway.

Finally, to offer increased reliability, mesh networks feature nodes that can connect to multiple nodes in the system and pass data through the most reliable path available. This mesh link is often referred to as a router.