Microsoft Research Blog

The Microsoft Research blog provides in-depth views and perspectives from our researchers, scientists and engineers, plus information about noteworthy events and conferences, scholarships, and fellowships designed for academic and scientific communities.

Monitoring the Brazilian Rainforest with a Sensor Network

May 23, 2010 | By Microsoft blog editor

The view from one of the research towers looking out into the Serra do Mar state park. From up here, a rich, diverse rainforest greets scientists as far as the eye can see. Yet only about eight percent of the original Atlantic rainforest survives today.

Last week, at the Microsoft Research sixth annual Latin American Faculty Summit in Guaruja, Brazil, Rob Fatland, program manager with Microsoft Research, and Humberto da Rocha, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the Universidade de São Paulo, led an intriguing presentation about their Atlantic Rainforest Micrometeorology Sensor Network Pilot Study. It’s a study that took place a mere 130 miles from where the Faculty Summit was held—a local project that could have broad environmental impact worldwide.

It all began about a year and a half ago when representatives from the Sao Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) asked Microsoft Research for assistance in developing a senor network with capabilities of operating under rainforest conditions.  The inquiry led  us to reach out to our colleagues at Johns Hopkins University, where a wireless sensor network program called Life Under Your Feet was previously developed, in collaboration with Microsoft Research, for soil-ecology research. So in October 2008, Microsoft Research brought the necessary experts and organizations together and this rainforest study was born.

The project was guided by three broad goals: first, to create a scientifically valid data set; second, to successfully engineer the project so that the technology could function fully in settings as challenging as a rainforest; and third, to develop a system that can serve as a model and be replicated in other research.



The Atlantic rainforest study site includes this 60-meter tower as well as five additional smaller towers, which are used for environmental research.

As a result of this close collaboration between researchers and scientists at Microsoft Research, Johns Hopkins University, and Universidad de São Paulo, the sensor network was deployed for four weeks in the rainforest, where it captured data every 30 seconds on the temperature, humidity and light throughout the canopy. In addition, a weather station recorded the staples of meteorology: rainfall, wind conditions and barometric pressure.

The result was that the team gathered an incredibly large and accurate data set that scientists are now analyzing to help them understand rainforest ecosystems. Additionally, the technology we’ve used in this study could be applied to a variety of situations across the globe, such as monitoring receding glaciers in the Arctic or measuring seismic activity for better earthquake predictions. 


Researcher Helber DeFreitas is installing a sensor mote. The mote (short for remote device) has four sensors attached to measure temperature, water vapor, and solar radiation. Innovative “duty cycling” technology from Johns Hopkins University will allow the devices to collect measurements for two seconds every 30 seconds and then power down to save battery life.

As researchers, we understand that our planet and our climate are undergoing change. Our challenge is that there’s still so much science can’t tell us—so many details that aren’t understood due to lack of data. This Atlantic rainforest project is one example of science and technology working together to understand a complex ecosystem.

Regardless of where we live, this type of research is a benefit for us all. For more information and to see a video of the Atlantic rainforest research site, you can visit our Atlantic Rainforest project page.

Dan Fay, director, Earth, Energy, and Environment, Microsoft External Research