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New networks take nature’s pulse

Outdoor advances such as low-power chips and tiny solar panels let computers get a breath of fresh air.

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Nature tech: Camalie Vineyards owner Mark Holler (left), a former Intel technologist, plays with a device that measures leaf-water potential, as manager Ramon Pulido looks on. The yellow node mounted atop a highway stake (top left corner) wirelessly transmits data to the vineyard headquarters.

Courtesy of Mark Holler/Camalie Vineyards

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The hand-sized yellow objects poking up among the lush canopies at Camalie Vineyards aren’t a new variety of monster grape. They’re electronic devices that can sense soil moisture.

Viticulturist Mark Holler says these wireless sensors sprinkled throughout the leaves help him manage the high cost of irrigation and improve his yield.

“Wireless sensor networks extend the Internet ... out into the environment,” says Mr. Holler, a retired Intel technologist who owns and runs the 4.4-acre vineyard in Napa, Calif.

While the networks won’t necessarily make someone a better vintner, they do have a practical side: During the 2007 drought in California, Holler figures the technology saved him several thousand dollars in water costs.

Electronics weren’t originally outdoor friendly. Rain and dust wreak havoc on computer circuits. Cables and power problems snarled early attempts at open-air networks. But as Wi-Fi and solar panels grew more popular, inventors started looking outside. Now, power-sipping wireless sensor networks are cropping up in more and more outdoor venues.

In Antarctica and California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, they measure snowpack. On volcanoes in Ecuador, they sense tremors. In Australia, they track invasive cane toads. And in Cambridge, Mass., they sit atop buildings and street lights to monitor weather changes and air pollution.

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