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NSW government launches Smart Sensing Network

The NSW Smart Sensing Network is now open for business, with five smart sensing projects underway to solve problems in the state's agricultural, healthcare, resources, transportation, and environmental sectors.

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Professor Ben Eggleton, co-director at NSSN

Image: USYD

The NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN) has officially been launched by the state government's chief scientist and engineer, professor Mary O'Kane.

Co-directed by professor Ben Eggleton from the University of Sydney (USYD) and professor Justin Gooding from the University of New South Wales (UNSW), the network will bring experts in fields such as chemistry, physics, nanotechnology, and ICT together to build solutions that can be deployed across sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, resources, transport, and the environment.

The vision of the network is to eventually commercialise and export the technologies it develops internationally, and generate economic benefits for the state.

To date, AU$950,000 has been invested into the NSSN, with the government contributing AU$700,000, and USYD and UNSW contributing AU$125,000 each.

The network is currently undertaking five smart sensing projects. It is developing low-cost photonic sensors to detect the concentration and size of particles in the atmosphere, with special implication for coal gas regions. The sensors will be tested in the upcoming weeks along the railway corridor in the lower Hunter Valley.

The NSSN is also looking to make ion mobility spectrometers -- the technology being used to screen for explosives at airports -- more portable and broaden their scope of application in areas such as the environment and health

"Just think about the potential for rapid onsite testing for toxic pollutants for use to sense other chemicals such as explosives, narcotics, chemical weapons, and even to diagnose and monitor diseases by measuring molecules in a person's breath," said professor Ian Jacobs, president and vice chancellor at the University of NSW, at the NSSN launch event on Wednesday.

In addition, personal blood glucose monitors are being repurposed so they have the capability to analyse for a range of medical conditions affecting NSW's population; while polyurethane-based optical fibre pressure sensors are being developed for sensing changes in the human body, which can be used to monitor vital signs in immobile patients and elite athletes.

Sound and image sensors are also being built to monitor native species like koalas that have been deemed "under siege" by the National Parks Association due to policy reforms that could lead to the destruction of their natural habitat.

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University of Sydney researcher Rejvi Kaysir conducting experiments with polymer light fibres.

Image: USYD


Dr Michael Spence, vice chancellor and principal at the University of Sydney, said the launch of NSSN marks both a "terrifying" and "exciting" time.

"It's terrifying because of the potential of this technology to know so much more than we have known before, to know so much more about us, to know so much more about the world in which we operate," Spence said at the NSSN launch event. "So to have this work done here in the university where we can think through the implications of that technology as it's developed is incredibly important."

Jacobs added that it's "sad" that there is a degree of anxiety and suspicion around emerging technologies.

"The very best uses of big data, the Internet of Things, will help turn cities like Sydney and our state into smart cities and far better places for everyone to live in. We're seeking technology, at both of our universities, that can serve our community," he said.

Given sensors and big data are inextricably linked, O'Kane said that the government is bipartisan in the support of open data.

NSW announced plans to create its Data Analytics Centre in August 2015, saying at the time that data is one of the greatest assets held by government, but when it is buried away in bureaucracy, it is of little value.

Since then, a bill was introduced that requires each of the agencies and state-owned amenities to give his department their data within 14 days. An advisory board was also appointed, charged with overseeing how the state government uses that data.

"We modestly take credit for getting some of this on the way, because out of the coal seam gas inquiry, we recommended the establishment of an environmental data repository and that's been launched a few weeks ago," O'Kane said at the NSSN launch event. "The state government will go there, but also private sector data where people are putting data to show that they're conforming to environmental impact statements. In time, a lot of sensor data will go there."

"That notion of big data is well embedded in the state and here we have the sensor side of it."

O'Kane said that the NSSN is not just for solving problems for the government, but also for industry.

"Research universities particularly are great problem solvers, but not only solvers of problems but very good problem articulators, so if a company or government has a problem that they can't quite articulate ... the great researchers in Australia are very very good at refining that problem, testing it, and then getting on and solving it," she said.

Eggleton said part of NSSN's vision is "to create a photonic shift" by building a device the size of a thumbnail that has an optical network integrated in it.

"Lasers, detectors, and optical componentry that are so small that it can be integrated into your smartphone seamlessly," Eggleton said. "So the long-term vision is to integrate these sensors into your phone, your iPhone 6, your iPhone 7. The iPhone 9 I'm imagining will have smart sensors that detect air quality, disease, and so forth. That's a really exciting vision that really is going to transform the world."

The NSSN will be partnering with additional universities, as well as local government, startups, organisations, and community groups.

The NSW government will be providing additional funding to the NSSN, as well as launching two more networks around cybersecurity and defence technology.