Ten years into a career in software development, Cameron Ross decided it was time to reinvent himself. Born and raised in Sudbury, Ross graduated from Laurentian University in 1996 with a Masters degree in Applied Physics. His career took him to Toronto, Calgary and Waterloo, Ontario, over the following decade, but he and his Sudbury-born wife were tired of moving around and missed home.
Sudbury’s proximity to the outdoors and the company of family and friends were appealing. The only question mark was how he would be able to sustain himself financially in a community with a limited software development base.
“The route I chose was to do a PhD in Natural Resource Engineering at Laurentian University,” said Ross. “It allows me to differentiate myself and gives me the time to think strategically and learn technologies that I probably wouldn’t learn otherwise.”
Working under the supervision of Dr. Graham Spiers, director of the Centre of Environmental Monitoring at the Mining Innovation, Rehabilitation and Applied Research Corporation (MIRARCO), Ross is breaking new ground in environmental informatics by developing the next generation of environmental monitoring technology.
Ross is leveraging two new trends in information technology: pervasive computing and autonomic computing. The first relates to the proliferation of information and communication technology such as cell phones and PDAs. Autonomic computing concerns the development of intelligent systems with self-management capabilities.
With current technology, monitoring air or water quality is expensive and time consuming, especially in remote areas.
“To measure the metal content in water, you have to go out and collect samples and you only do it in a few places and very infrequently, so both the temporal and spatial resolution of your data is low,” said Ross.
With smaller, less expensive monitoring devices being developed as a consequence of pervasive computing, it will be possible to deploy a high density of environmental monitoring devices to measure effluent from mines, air quality or sulphur fallout.
Ross’ work is focused on the development of a software platform that would be embedded in the instrumentation and allow for self-management, self-configuration, self-optimization, self-protection and self-healing.
“You can imagine going out and deploying 10,000 sensors in the Sudbury area and then having to manage them. Right now it would be difficult and costly,” said Ross. It’s analogous to managing 2,000 dissimilar printers in a large company. This is the challenge autonomic computing is designed to address, said Ross.
“The technology I am developing moves information from the low-level data soup into actionable information that can drive decision-making.”
Ten thousand sensors distributed over a large geographic area would also require a source of power and communication capability.
The solution, said Ross, will entail the use of advanced, extremely low power consuming technology, low-orbiting satellites and communication-limiting autonomic computing. Solar energy, he said, is one possible power source.
Many of the areas that would be monitored would likely be out of cellular communication range, leaving satellite communication as the only alternative.
Transmitting a signal to a conventional satellite orbiting the Earth 37,000 km away consumes a lot of energy, but low-earth orbiting satellites at a distance of 800 km “dramatically decrease the amount of power required.”
Ross probably could have applied his talents as a software developer or consultant in Sudbury, but was determined to be the master of his own fate.
“My family is very entrepreneurial and I’ve always wanted to do my own thing,” he said. “Fundamentally, that means creating something and having a product to sell.”
Ross has already established a company, Symboticware Inc., to take his next generation environmental monitoring systems to market. In the meantime, he and his wife are happy to be back home and enjoying the lifestyle Sudbury has to offer.
Part of a wave of highly educated Sudburrians to return to the community, Ross is also contributing to the city’s intellectual capital and Laurentian University’s standing as a centre of research and innovation.