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USENIX 2002 Annual Technical Conference Paper    [USENIX 2002 Technical Program Index]

Pp. 317-327 of the Proceedings

Robust Positioning Algorithms for Distributed Ad-Hoc Wireless Sensor Networks

Chris Savarese Jan Rabaey
Berkeley Wireless Research Center

Koen Langendoen
Faculty of Information Technology and Systems
Delft University of Technology, The Netherlands


A distributed algorithm for determining the positions of nodes in an ad-hoc, wireless sensor network is explained in detail. Details regarding the implementation of such an algorithm are also discussed. Experimentation is performed on networks containing 400 nodes randomly placed within a square area, and resulting error magnitudes are represented as percentages of each node's radio range. In scenarios with 5% errors in distance measurements, 5% anchor node population (nodes with known locations), and average connectivity levels between neighbors of 7 nodes, the algorithm is shown to have errors less than 33% on average. It is also shown that, given an average connectivity of at least 12 nodes and 10% anchors, the algorithm performs well with up to 40% errors in distance measurements.


Ad-hoc wireless sensor networks are being developed for use in monitoring a host of environmental characteristics across the area of deployment, such as light, temperature, sound, and many others. Most of these data have the common characteristic that they are useful only when considered in the context of where the data were measured, and so most sensor data will be stamped with position information. As these are ad-hoc networks, however, acquiring this position data can be quite challenging.

Ad-hoc systems strive to incorporate as few assumptions as possible about characteristics such as the composition of the network, the relative positioning of nodes, and the environment in which the network operates. This calls for robust algorithms that are capable of handling the wide set of possible scenarios left open by so many degrees of freedom. Specifically, we only assume that all the nodes being considered in an instance of the positioning problem are within the same connected network, and that there will exist within this network a minimum of four anchor nodes. Here, a connected network is a network in which there is a path between every pair of nodes, and an anchor node is a node that is given a priori knowledge of its position with respect to some global coordinate system.

A consequence of the ad-hoc nature of these networks is the lack of infrastructure inherent to them. With very few exceptions, all nodes are considered equal; this makes it difficult to rely on centralized computation to solve network wide problems, such as positioning. Thus, we consider distributed algorithms that achieve robustness through iterative propagation of information through a network.

The positioning algorithm being considered relies on measurements, with limited accuracy, of the distances between pairs of neighboring nodes; we call these range measurements. Several techniques can be used to generate these range measurements, including time of arrival, angle of arrival, phase measurements, and received signal strength. This algorithm is indifferent to which method is used, except that different methods offer different tradeoffs between accuracy, complexity, cost, and power requirements. Some of these methods generate range measurements with errors as large as $ \pm$50% of the measurement. Note that these errors can come from multiple sources, including multipath interference, line-of-sight obstruction, and channel inhomogeneity with regard to direction. This work, however, is not concerned with the problem of determining accurate range measurements. Instead, we assume large errors in range measurements that should represent an agglomeration of multiple sources of error. Being able to cope with range measurements errors is the first of two major challenges in positioning within an ad-hoc space, and will be termed the range error problem throughout this paper.

The second major challenge behind ad-hoc positioning algorithms, henceforth referred to as the sparse anchor node problem, comes from the need for at least four reference points with known location in a three-dimensional space in order to uniquely determine the location of an unknown object. Too few reference points results in ambiguities that lead to underdetermined systems of equations. Recalling the assumptions made above, only the anchor nodes will have positioning information at the start of these algorithms, and we assume that these anchor nodes will be located randomly throughout an arbitrarily large network. Given limited radio ranges, it is therefore highly unlikely that any randomly selected node in the network will be in direct communication with a sufficient number of reference points to derive its own position estimate.

In response to these two primary obstacles, we present an algorithm split into two phases: the start-up phase and the refinement phase. The start-up phase addresses the sparse anchor node problem by cooperatively spreading awareness of the anchor nodes' positions throughout the network, allowing all nodes to arrive at initial position estimates. These initial estimates are not expected to be very accurate, but are useful as rough approximations. The refinement phase of the algorithm then uses the results of the start-up algorithm to improve upon these initial position estimates. It is here that the range error problem is addressed.

This paper presents our algorithms in detail, and discusses several network design guidelines that should be taken into consideration when deploying a system with such an algorithm. Section 2 will discuss related work in this field. Section 3 will elaborate our two-phase algorithm approach, exploring in depth the start-up and refinement phases of our solution. Section 4 will discuss some subtleties of the algorithm in relation to our simulation environment. Section 5 reports on the experiments performed to characterize the performance of our algorithm. Finally, Section 6 is a discussion of design guidelines and algorithm limitations, and Section 7 concludes the paper.

Related work

The recent survey and taxonomy by Hightower and Borriello provides a general overview of the state of the art in location systems [7]. However, few systems for locating sensor nodes in an ad-hoc network are described, because of the aforementioned range error and sparse anchor node problems. Many systems are based on the attractive option of using the RF radio for measuring the range between nodes, for example, by observing the signal strength. Experience has shown, however, that this approach yields very inaccurate distances [8]. Much better results are obtained by time-of-flight measurements, particularly when acoustic and RF signals are combined [6,12]; accuracies of a few percent of the transmission range are reported. Acoustic signals, however, are temperature dependent and require an unobstructed line of sight. Furthermore, even small errors do accumulate when propagating distance information over multiple hops.

A drastic approach that avoids the range error problem altogether is to use only connectivity between nodes. The GPS-less system by Bulusu et al. [3] employs a grid of beacon nodes with known locations; each unknown node sets its position to the centroid of the locations of the beacons connected to the unknown. The position accuracy is about one-third of the separation distance between beacons, implying a high beacon density for practical purposes. Doherty et al. use the connectivity between nodes to formulate a set of geometric constraints and solve it using convex optimization [5]. The resulting accuracy depends on the fraction of anchor nodes. For example, with 10% anchors the accuracy for unknowns is on the order of the radio range. A serious drawback, which is currently being addressed, is that convex optimization is performed by a single, centralized node. The ``DV-hop'' approach by Niculescu and Nath, in contrast, is completely ad-hoc and achieves an accuracy of about one-third of the radio range for networks with dense populations of (highly connected) nodes [10]. In a first phase anchors flood their location to all nodes in the network. Each unknown node records the position and (minimum) number of hops to at least three anchors. Whenever an anchor $ a_1$ infers the position of another anchor $ a_2$ it computes the distance between them, divides that by the number of hops, and floods this average hop distance into the network. Each unknown uses the average hop distance to convert hop counts to distances, and then performs a triangulation to three or more distant anchors to estimate its own position. ``DV-hop'' works well in dense and regular topologies, but for sparse or irregular networks the accuracy degrades to the radio range.

More accurate positions can be obtained by using the range measurements between individual nodes (when the errors are small). When the fraction of anchor nodes is high the ``iterative multilateration'' method by Savvides et al. can be used [12]. Nodes that are connected to at least three anchors compute their position and upgrade to anchor status, allowing additional unknowns to compute their position in the next iteration, etc. Recently a number of approaches have been proposed that require few anchors [4,9,10,11]. They are quite similar and operate as follows. A node measures the distances to its neighbors and then broadcasts this information. This results in each node knowing the distance to its neighbors and some distances between those neighbors. This allows for the construction of (partial) local maps with relative positions. Adjacent local maps are combined by aligning (mirroring, rotating) the coordinate systems. The known positions of the anchor nodes are used to obtain maps with absolute positions. When three or more anchors are present in the network a single absolute map results. This style of locationing is not very robust since range errors accumulate when combining the maps.

Two-phase positioning

As mentioned earlier, the two primary obstacles to positioning in an ad-hoc network are the sparse anchor node problem and the range error problem. In order to address each of these problems sufficiently, our algorithm is separated into two phases: start-up and refinement. For the start-up phase we use Hop-TERRAIN, an in-house algorithm similar to DV-hop [10]. The Hop-TERRAIN algorithm is run once at the beginning of the positioning algorithm to overcome the sparse anchor node problem, and the Refinement algorithm is run iteratively afterwards to improve upon and refine the position estimates generated by Hop-TERRAIN. Note therefore that the emphasis for Hop-TERRAIN is not on getting highly accurate position estimates, but instead on getting very rough estimates so as to have a starting point for Refinement. Conversely, Refinement is concerned only with nodes that exist within a one-hop neighborhood, and it focuses on increasing the accuracy of the position estimates as much as possible.


Before the positioning algorithm has started, most of the nodes in a network have no positioning data, with the exception of the anchors. The networks being considered for this algorithm will be scalable to very large numbers of nodes spread over large areas, relative to the short radio ranges that each of the nodes is expected to possess. Furthermore, it is expected that the percentage of nodes that are anchor nodes will be small. This results in a situation in which only a very small percentage of the nodes in the network are able to establish direct contact with any of the anchors, and probably none of the nodes in the network will be able to directly contact enough anchors to derive a position estimate.

In order to overcome this initial information deficiency, the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm finds the number of hops from a node to each of the anchors nodes in a network and then multiplies this hop count by an average hop distance (see Section 4.2) to estimate the range between the node and each anchor. These computed ranges are then used together with the anchor nodes' known positions to perform a triangulation and get the node's estimated position. The triangulation consists of solving a system of linearized equations (Ax=b) by means of a least squares algorithm, as in earlier work [11].

Each of the anchor nodes launches the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm by initiating a broadcast containing its known location and a hop count of 0. All of the one-hop neighbors surrounding an anchor hear this broadcast, record the anchor's position and a hop count of 1, and then perform another broadcast containing the anchor's position and a hop count of 1. Every node that hears this broadcast and did not hear the previous broadcasts will record the anchor's position and a hop count of 2 and then rebroadcast. This process continues until each anchor's position and an associated hop count value have been spread to every node in the network. It is important that nodes receiving these broadcasts search for the smallest number of hops to each anchor. This ensures conformity with the model used to estimate the average distance of a hop, and it also greatly reduces network traffic.

As broadcasts may be omni-directional, and may therefore reach nodes behind the broadcasting node (relative to the direction of the flow of information), this algorithm causes nodes to hear many more packets than necessary. In order to prevent an infinite loop of broadcasts, nodes are allowed to broadcast information only if it is not stale to them. In this context, information is stale if it refers to an anchor that the node has already heard from and if the hop count included in the arriving packet is greater than or equal to the hop count stored in memory for this particular anchor. New information will always trigger a broadcast, whereas stale information will never trigger a broadcast.

Once a node has received an average hop distance and data regarding at least 3(4) anchor nodes for a network existing in a 2(3)-dimensional space, it is able to perform a triangulation to estimate its location. If this node subsequently receives new data after already having performed a triangulation, either a smaller hop count or a new anchor, the node simply performs another triangulation to include the new data. This procedure is summarized in the following piece of pseudo code:

when a positioning packet is received,

if new anchor or lower hop count
store hop count for this anchor.
broadcast new packet for this anchor with
hop count = (hop count + 1).
do nothing.
if average hop count is known and
number of anchors $ >=$ (dimension of space + 1)
do nothing.
The resulting position estimate is likely to be coarse in terms of accuracy, but it provides an initial condition from which Refinement can launch. The performance of this algorithm is discussed in detail in Section 5.


Given the initial position estimates of Hop-TERRAIN in the start-up phase, the objective of the refinement phase is to obtain more accurate positions using the estimated ranges between nodes. Since Refinement must operate in an ad-hoc network, only the distances to the direct (one-hop) neighbors of a node are considered. This limitation allows Refinement to scale to arbitrary network sizes and to operate on low-level networks that do not support multi-hop routing (only a local broadcast is required).

Refinement is an iterative algorithm in which the nodes update their positions in a number of steps. At the beginning of each step a node broadcasts its position estimate, receives the positions and corresponding range estimates from its neighbors, and computes a least squares triangulation solution to determine its new position. In many cases the constraints imposed by the distances to the neighboring locations will force the new position towards the true position of the node. When, after a number of iterations, the position update becomes small Refinement stops and reports the final position. Note that Refinement is by nature an ad-hoc (distributed) algorithm.

The beauty of Refinement is its simplicity, but that also limits its applicability. In particular, it was a priori not clear under what conditions Refinement would converge and how accurate the final solution would be. A number of factors that influence the convergence and accuracy of iterative Refinement are:

$ \bullet$
the accuracy of the initial position estimates,
$ \bullet$
the magnitude of errors in the range estimates,
$ \bullet$
the average number of neighbors, and
$ \bullet$
the fraction of anchor nodes.
Based on previous experience we assume that redundancy can counter the above influences to a large extent. When a node has more than 3(4) neighbors in a 2(3)-dimensional space the induced system of linear equations is over-defined and errors will be averaged out by the least squares solver. For example, data collected by Beutel [1] shows that large range errors (standard deviation of 50%) can be tolerated when locating a node surrounded by 5 (or more) anchors in a 2-dimensional space: the average distance between the estimated and true position of the node is less than 5% of the radio range.

Despite the positive effects from redundancy we observed that a straightforward application of Refinement did not converge in a considerable number of ``reasonable'' cases. Close inspection of the sequence of steps taken under Refinement revealed two important causes:

Errors propagate fast throughout the whole network. If the network has a diameter $ d$, then an error introduced by a node in step $ s$ has (indirectly) affected every node in the network by step $ s+d$ because of the triangulate-hop-triangulate-hop$ \cdots$ pattern.
Some network topologies are inherently hard, or even impossible, to locate. For example, a cluster of $ n$ nodes (no anchors) connected by a single link to the main network can be simply rotated around the `entry'-point into the network while keeping the exact same intra- node ranges. Another example is given in Figure 1.
To mitigate error propagation we modified the refinement algorithm to include a confidence associated with each node's position. The confidences are used to weigh the equations when solving the system of linear equations. Instead of solving Ax=b we now solve $ w$Ax=$ w$b, where $ w$ is the vector of confidence weights. Nodes, like anchors, that have high faith in their position estimates select high confidence values (close to 1). A node that observes poor conditions (e.g., few neighbors, poor constellation) associates a low confidence (close to 0) with its position estimate, and consequently has less impact on the outcome of the triangulations performed by its neighbors. The details of confidence selection will be discussed in Section 4.3. The usage of confidence weights improved the behavior of Refinement greatly: almost all cases converge now, and the accuracy of the positions is also improved considerably.

Another improvement to Refinement was necessary to handle the second issue of ill-connected groups of nodes. Detecting that a single node is ill-connected is easy: if the number of neighbors is less than 3(4) then the node is ill-connected in a 2(3)-dimensional space. Detecting that a group of nodes is ill-connected, however, is more complicated since some global overview is necessary. We employ a heuristic that operates in an ad-hoc fashion (no centralized computation), yet is able to detect most ill-connected nodes. The underlying premise for the heuristic is that a sound node has independent references to at least 3(4) anchors. That is, the multi-hop routes to the anchors have no link (edge) in common. For example, node 3 in Figure 1 (which is taken from [12]) meets this criteria and is considered sound.

Figure 1: Example topology.

To determine if a node is sound, the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm records the ID of each node's immediate neighbor along a shortest path to each anchor. When multiple shortest paths are available, the first one discovered is used (this only approximates the intended condition but is considerably simpler). These IDs are collected in a set of sound neighbors. When the number of unique IDs in this set reaches 3(4), a node declares itself sound and may enter the Refinement phase. The neighbors of the sound node add its ID to their sets and may in turn become sound if their sound sets become sufficient. This process continues throughout the network. The end result is that most ill-connected nodes will not be able to fill their sets of sound neighbors with enough entries and, therefore, may not participate in the Refinement phase. In the example topology in Figure 1, node 3 will become sound, but node 4 will not. We also note that the more restrictive participating node definition by Savvides et al. renders both unknown nodes as ill-conditioned  [12].

Refinement with both modifications (confidence weights, detection of ill-connected nodes) performs quite satisfactorily, as will be shown by the experiments in Section 5.

Simulation and algorithm details

To study the robustness of our two-phase positioning algorithm we created a simulation environment in which we can easily control a number of (network) parameters. We implemented the Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement algorithms as C++ code running under the control of the OMNeT++ discrete event simulator [13]. The algorithms are event driven, where an event can be an incoming message or a periodic timer. Processing an event usually involves updating internal state, and often generates output messages that must be broadcast. All simulated sensor nodes run exactly the same C++ code. The OMNeT++ library is in control of the simulated time and enforces a semi-concurrent execution of the code `running' on the multiple sensor nodes.

Network layer

Although our positioning algorithm is designed to be used in an ad-hoc network that presumably employs multi-hop routing algorithms, our algorithm only requires that a node be able to broadcast a message to all of its one hop neighbors. An important result of this is the ability for system designers to allow the routing protocols to rely on position information, rather than the positioning algorithm relying on routing capabilities.

An important issue is whether or not the network provides reliable communication in the presence of concurrent transmission. In this paper we assume that message loss or corruption does not occur and that each message is delivered at the neighbors within a fixed radio range ($ R$) from the sending node. Concurrent transmissions are allowed when the transmission areas (circles) do not overlap. A node wanting to broadcast a message while another message in its area is in progress must wait until that transmission (and possibly other queued messages) completes. In effect we employ a CSMA policy.

The functionality of the network layer (local broadcast) is implemented in a single OMNeT++ object, which is connected to all sensor-node objects in the simulation. This network object holds the topology of the simulated sensor network, which can be read from a "scenario" file or generated at random at initialization time. At time zero the network object sends a pseudo message to each sensor-node object telling its role (anchor or unknown) and some attributes (e.g., the position in the case of an anchor node). From then on it relays messages generated by sensor nodes to the sender's neighbors within a radius of $ R$ units.


At time zero of the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm, all of the nodes in the network are waiting to receive hop count packets informing them of the positions and hop distances associated with each of the anchor nodes. Also at time zero, each of the anchor nodes in the network broadcasts a hop count packet, which is received and repeated by all of the anchors' one-hop neighbors. This information is propagated throughout the network until, ideally, all the nodes in the network have positions and hop counts for all of the anchors in the network as well as an average hop distance (see below). At this point, each of the nodes performs a triangulation to create an initial estimate of its position. The number of anchors in any particular scenario is not known by the nodes in the network, however, so it is difficult to define a stopping criteria to dictate when a node should stop waiting for more information before performing a triangulation. To solve this problem, nodes perform triangulations every time they receive information that is not stale after having received information from the first 3(4) anchors in a 2(3)-dimensional space (see Section 3.1 for a definition of stale information).

Nodes also rely on the anchor nodes to inform them of the value to use for the assumed average hop distance used in calculating the estimated range to each anchor. Initially we experimented with simply using the maximum radio range for this quantity. Better position results, however, are attained by dynamically determining the average hop distance by comparing the number of hops between the anchors themselves to the known distances separating them following the calibration procedure used for DV-hop (see Section 2). We implemented the calibration procedure as a separate pass that follows the initial hop-count flooding. When an anchor node receives a hop count from another anchor it computes its estimate of the average hop distance, and floods that back into the network. Nodes wait for the first such estimate to arrive before performing any triangulation as outlined above. Subsequent estimates from other anchor pairs are simply discarded to reduce network load.

The above details are sufficient for controlling the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm within a simulated environment where all of the nodes start up at the same time. One important consequence of a real network, however, is that the nodes in the network start up or enter the network at random times, relative to each other. This allows for the possibility that a late node might miss some of the waves of propagated broadcast messages originating at the anchor nodes. To solve this, each node is programmed to announce itself when it first comes online in a new network. Likewise, every node is programmed to respond to these announcements by passing the new node their own position estimates, the positions of all of the anchor nodes they know of, and the hop counts and hop distance metrics associated with these anchors. Note that, according to the rebroadcast rules regarding stale information, this information will all be new to the new node, causing this new node to then rebroadcast all of the information to all of its one-hop neighbors. This becomes important in the cases where the new node forms a link between two clusters of nodes that were previously not connected. In cases where all or most of the new node's one-hop neighbors came online before the new node, this information will most likely be considered stale, and so these broadcasts will not be repeated past a distance of one hop.


The refinement algorithm is implemented as a periodic process. The information in incoming messages is recorded internally, but not processed immediately. This allows for accumulating multiple position updates from different neighbors, and responding with a single reply (outgoing broadcast message). The task of an anchor node is very simple: it broadcasts its position whenever it has detected a new neighbor in the preceding period. The task of an unknown node is more complicated. If new information arrived in the preceding period it performs a triangulation to compute a new position estimate, determines an associated confidence level, and finally decides whether or not to send out a position update to its neighbors.

A confidence is a value between 0 and 1. Anchors immediately start off with confidence 1; unknown nodes start off at a low value (0.1) and may raise their confidence at subsequent Refinement iterations. Whenever a node performs a successful triangulation it sets its confidence to the average of its neighbors' confidences. This will, in general, raise the confidence level. Nodes close to anchors will raise their confidence at the first triangulation, raising in turn the confidence of nodes two hops away from anchors on the next iteration, etc. Triangulations sometimes fail or the new position is rejected on other grounds (see below). In these cases the confidence is set to zero, so neighbors will not be using erroneous information of the inconsistent node in the next iteration. This generally leads to new neighbor positions bringing the faulty node back into a consistent state, allowing it to build its confidence level again. In unfortunate cases a node keeps getting back into an inconsistent state, never converging to a final position/confidence. To warrant termination we simply limit the number of position updates of a node to a maximum. Nodes that end up with a poor confidence ($ <$ 0.1) are discarded and excluded from the reported error results; all others are considered to be located and included in the results.

To avoid flooding the network with insignificant or erroneous position updates the triangulation results are classified as follows. First, a triangulation may simply fail because the system of equations is underdetermined (too few neighbors, bad constellation). Second, the new position may be very close to the current one, rendering the position update insignificant. We use a tight cutoff radius of $ \frac{1}{1000}$ of the radio range; experimentation showed Refinement is fairly insensitive to this value as long as it is small (under 1% of the radio range). Third, we check that the new position is within the reach of the anchors used by Hop-TERRAIN. Similarly to Doherty et al. [5] we check the convex constraints that the distance between the position estimate and anchor $ a_i$ must be less than the length of the shortest path to $ a_i$ (hop-count$ _i$) times the radio range ($ R$). When the position drifts outside the convex region, we reset the position to the original initial position computed by Hop-TERRAIN. Finally, the validity of the new position is checked by computing the difference between the sum of the observed ranges and the sum of the distances between the new position and the neighbor locations. Dividing this difference by the number of neighbors yields a normalized residue. If the residue is large (residue $ >$ radio range) we assume that the system of equations is inconsistent and reject the new position. To avoid being trapped in some local minima, however, we occasionally accept bad moves (10% chance), similar to a simulated annealing procedure (without cooling down), and reduce the confidence by 50%.

An unexpected source of errors is that Hop-TERRAIN assigns the same initial position to all nodes with identical hop counts to the anchors. For example, twin nodes that share the exact same set of neighbors are both assigned the same initial position. The consequence is that a neighbor of two `look-alikes' is confronted with a large inconsistency: two nodes that share the same position have two different range estimates. Simply dropping one of the two equations from the triangulation yields better position estimates in the first iteration of Refinement and even has a noticeable impact on the accuracy of the final position estimates.


In order to evaluate our algorithm, we ran many experiments on both Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement using the OMNeT++ simulation environment. All data points represent averages over 100 trials in networks containing 400 nodes. The nodes are randomly placed, with a uniform distribution, within a square area. The specified fraction of anchors is randomly selected, and the range between connected nodes is blurred by drawing a random value from a normal distribution having a parameterized standard deviation and having the true range as the mean1. The connectivity (average number of neighbors) is controlled by specifying the radio range. To allow for easy comparison between different scenarios, range errors as well as errors on position estimates are normalized to the radio range (i.e. 50% position error means half the range of the radio).

Figure 2: Average position error after Hop-TERRAIN (5% range errors).

Figure 2 shows the average performance of the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm as a function of connectivity and anchor population in the presence of 5% range errors. As seen in this plot, position estimates by Hop-TERRAIN have an average accuracy under 100% error in scenarios with at least 5% anchor population and an average connectivity level of 7 or greater. In extreme situations where very few anchors exist and connectivity in the network is very low, Hop-TERRAIN errors reach above 250%.

Figure 3: Average position error after Refinement (5% range errors).

Figure 4: Fraction of located nodes (2% anchors, 5% range errors).

Figure 3 displays the results from the same experiment depicted in Figure 2, but now the position estimates of Hop-TERRAIN are subsequently processed by the Refinement algorithm. Its shape is similar to that of Figure 2, showing relatively consistent error levels of less than 33% in scenarios with at least 5% anchor population and an average connectivity level of 7 or greater. Refinement also has problems with low connectivity and anchor populations, and is shown to climb above 50% position error in these harsh conditions. Overall Refinement improves the accuracy of the position estimates by Hop-TERRAIN by a factor three to five.

Figure 4 helps to explain the sharp increases in positioning errors for low anchor populations and sparse networks shown in figures 2 and 3. Figure 4 shows that, as the average connectivity between nodes throughout the network decreases past certain points, both algorithms break down, failing to derive position estimates for large fractions of the network. This is due simply to a lacking of sufficient information, and is a necessary consequence of loosely connected networks. Nodes can only be located when connected to at least 3(4) neighbors; Refinement also requires a minimal confidence level (0.1). It should be noted that the results in Figure 4 imply that the reported average position errors for low connectivities in figures 2 and 3 have low statistical significance, as these points represent only small fractions of the total network. Nevertheless, the general conclusion to be drawn from figures 2, 3, and 4 is that both Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement perform poorly in networks with average connectivity levels of less than 7.

Figure 5: Average position error after Hop-TERRAIN (2D grid, 5% range errors).

Figure 6: Range error sensitivity (10% anchors, connectivity 12).

Since connectivity has a pronounced effect on position error we were interested if other topological characteristics would show large effects as well. In the following experiment we randomly place 400 nodes on the vertices of a 200x200 grid, rather than allowing the nodes to sit anywhere in the square area. We found that the grid layout did not result in better performance for the Refinement algorithm, relative to the performance of the Refinement algorithm with random node placement. We do not include a plot here because it looks almost identical to Figure 3. We did find a difference in performance for Hop-TERRAIN though. Figure 5 shows that placing the nodes on a grid dramatically reduces the errors of the Hop-TERRAIN algorithm in the cases where connectivity or anchor node populations are low. For example, with 5% anchors and a connectivity of 8 nodes, the average position error decreases from 95% (random distribution) to 60% (grid). We suspect this is due to the consistent distances between nodes, the ideal topologies within clusters that result form the grid layout, and the inherently optimized connectivity levels across the entire network.

Figure 7: Cumulative error distribution (5% range errors).

Sensitivity to average error levels in the range measurements is a major concern for positioning algorithms. Figure 6 shows the results of an experiment in which we held anchor population and connectivity constant at 10% and 12 nodes, respectively, while varying the average level of error in the range measurements. We found that Hop-TERRAIN was almost completely insensitive to range errors. This is a result of the binary nature of the procedure in which routing hops are counted; if nodes can see each other, they pass on incremented hop counts, but at no time do any nodes attempt to measure the actual ranges between them. Unlike Hop-TERRAIN, Refinement does rely on the range measurements performed between nodes, and Figure 6 shows this dependence accordingly. At less than 40% error in the range measurements, on average, Refinement offers improved position estimates over Hop-TERRAIN. The results improve steadily as the range errors decrease. For reference we determined the best possible position information that can be obtained in each case. For each node we performed a triangulation using the true positions of its neighbors and the corresponding erroneous range measurements. The resulting position errors are plotted as the lower bound in Figure 6. This suggests that there is room for improvement for Refinement.

Figure 8: Relation between confidence and positioning error (average and standard deviation).

Up until this point we reported average position errors. Figure 7, in contrast, gives a detailed look at the distribution of the position errors for individual nodes under four different scenarios. Note that the distributions have similar shapes: many nodes with small errors, large tails with outliers. Refinement's confidence metrics are to some extent capable of pinpointing the outliers. Figure 8 shows the relationship between position error levels and the corresponding confidence values assigned to each node. The data for Figure 8 was taken from the best and worst case scenarios from the same experiment used to generate Figure 7. As desired, the nodes with higher position errors are assigned lower confidence levels. In the easier case, the confidence indicators are much more reliable than in the more difficult case. The large standard deviations, however, show that confidence is not a good indicator for position accuracy. This is unfortunate since a reliable confidence metric would be very useful for applications, for example, to identify regions of ``bad'' nodes. Currently, the value of using confidence levels is the improved average positioning error compared to a naive implementation of Refinement without confidences.

Finally, yet another useful way of looking at the distribution of errors over individual nodes is to take their geographical location into account. Figure 9 plots positioning errors as a function of a node's location in the square testing area. This experiment used 400 randomly placed nodes, an anchor population of 5%, an average connectivity level of 12, and range errors of 5%. The error distribution in Figure 9 is quite typical for many scenarios showing that areas along the edges of the network lacking a high concentration of anchor nodes are particularly susceptible to high position errors.


Figure 9: Geographic error distribution (5% anchors, connectivity 12, 5% range errors).

It is interesting to compare our results from the previous section with the alternative approaches discussed in Section 2. First, we discuss the performance of Hop-TERRAIN and related algorithms that do not use range measurements. Hop-TERRAIN is similar to the ``DV-hop'' algorithm by Niculescu and Nath [10], but we get consistently higher position errors, for example, 69% (Hop-TERRAIN) versus 35% (DV-hop) on a scenario with 10% anchors and a connectivity of 8. Under poorer network conditions though, Hop-TERRAIN is more robust than DV-hop, showing about a factor of 2 improvement in position accuracy in sparsely connected networks. Regardless, the trend observed in both studies is the same: when the fraction of anchors drops below 5%, position errors rapidly increase. The convex optimization technique by Doherty et al. [5] is about as accurate as Hop-TERRAIN, except for very low fractions of anchors. For example, convex optimization achieves position errors that are above 150% on a scenario (200 nodes, 5% anchors, connectivity of 6) where Hop-TERRAIN errors are around 125%; the gap grows for even lower fractions of anchors. As mentioned earlier, convex optimization is a centralized algorithm.

The results of Refinement are comparable to those reported by Savvides et al. for an ``iterative multilateration'' scenario with 50 nodes, 20% anchors, connectivity 10, and 1% range errors [12]. Their algorithm, however, can handle neither low anchor fractions nor low connectivities, because positioning starts from nodes connected to at least 3 anchors. Refinement still performs acceptably well with few anchors or a low connectivity. Furthermore the preliminary results of their more advanced ``collaborative multilateration'' algorithm show that Refinement is able to determine the position of a larger fraction of unknowns: 56% (Refinement) versus 10% (collaborative multilateration) on a scenario with just 5% anchors (200 nodes, connectivity 6).

The ``Euclidean'' algorithm by Niculescu and Nath uses range estimates to construct local maps that are unified into a single global map [10]. The results reported for random configurations show that ``Euclidean'' is rather sensitive to range errors, especially with low fractions of anchors: in case of 10% anchors their Hop-TERRAIN equivalent (DV-hop) outperforms Euclidean. Refinement achieves better position estimates and is more robust since the cross over with Hop-TERRAIN occurs around 40% range errors (see Figure 6).

In summary, the performance of Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement is comparable to other algorithms in the case of ``easy'' network topologies (high connectivity, many anchors) with low range errors, and outperforms the competition in difficult cases (low connectivity, few anchors, large range errors). The results of refinement can most likely be improved even further when the placement of anchors nodes can be controlled given the positive experience reported by others [2,5]. Since the largest errors occur along the edges of the network (see Figure 9), most anchors should be placed on the perimeter of the network. Another approach to increase the accuracy of locationing systems is to use other sources of information. When locating sensors in a room, for example, knowing that the sensors are wall mounted eliminates one degree of freedom. Incorporating such knowledge in localization algorithms, however, requires great care. For example, knowing that two sensors cannot communicate does not imply that they are located far apart since a wall may simply prohibit radio communication.

Based on the experimental results from Section 5 and the discussion above we recommend a number of guidelines for the installation of wireless sensor networks:

$ \bullet$
place anchors carefully (i.e. at the edges), and either
$ \bullet$
ensure a high connectivity ($ >$ 10), or
$ \bullet$
employ a reasonable fraction of anchors ($ >$ 5%).
This will create the best conditions for positioning algorithms in general, and for Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement in particular.

Conclusions and future work

In this paper we have presented a completely distributed algorithm for solving the problem of positioning nodes within an ad-hoc, wireless network of sensor nodes. The procedure is partitioned into two algorithms: Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement. Each algorithm is described in detail. The simulation environment used to evaluate these algorithms is explained, including details about the specific implementation of each algorithm. Many experiments are documented for each algorithm, showing several aspects of the performance achieved under many different scenarios. The results show that we are able to achieve position errors of less than 33% in a scenario with 5% range measurement error, 5% anchor population, and an average connectivity of 7 nodes. Finally, guidelines for implementing and deploying a network that will use these algorithms are given and explained.

An important aspect of wireless sensor networks is energy consumption. In the near future we therefore plan to study the amount of communication and computation induced by running Hop-TERRAIN and Refinement. A particularly interesting aspect is how the accuracy vs. energy consumption trade-off changes over subsequent iterations of Refinement.


We would like to thank DARPA for funding the Berkeley Wireless Research Center under the PAC-C program (Grant #F29601-99-1-0169). Also, Koen Langendoen was supported by the USENIX Research Exchange (ReX) program, which allowed him to visit the BWRC for the summer of 2001 and work on the Refinement algorithm. Finally, we would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and our ``shepherd'' Mike Spreitzer for their constructive comments on the draft version of this paper.


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About this document ...

Robust Positioning Algorithms for Distributed Ad-Hoc Wireless Sensor Networks

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