Science Scope

With 'smart dust,' a trillion sensors scattered around the globe

With 'smart dust,' a trillion sensors scattered around the globe

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If we put smart dust in the environment, the tiny sensors could track everything in real-time. It just might be what we need to measure the Earth's vital signs to help us live more efficiently.

Kris Pister has been fiddling with smart dust since the 1990s. Originally, the idea was to deploy dust-sized sensors randomly around the environment, so the Earth could be monitored in real-time. 

“It's exciting. It's been a long time coming,” Pister, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told CNN News. “I coined the phrase 14 years ago. So smart dust has taken a while, but it's finally here."

It's here, but in a bigger and more controlled way. Enter HP Lab's Central Nervous System for Earth (CeNSE), a plan to send out a trillion sensors around the globe.

The small matchbook sized monitors will have sensors that are similar to what is in the iPhone but are much more powerful. After the smart dust is packaged with a protecting layer, it's not exactly the size of a dust particle. It's more like the size of a VHS tape.

In a couple years, HP will work with Royal Dutch Shell to install 1 million of the smart dust sensors to measure rock vibrations and movements to give them a smarter way to look for oil. Currently, half the oil wells turned out to be dry, so knowing where the abundant places to drill would help.

As more companies jump on the smart dust band wagon, the more we will know about every breath of Earth's vital signs and be able to predict its environmental hiccups. Knowing more about the natural world and being able to record them in detail will help us live smarter and more efficiently.

As the health of our Earth is put on life support, these wireless sensor networks give scientists more understanding about uncontrollable events like volcanic eruptions (as we know how frustrating that can be!).

Smart dust can fill in where microscopes and telescopes can't: The dust motes can measure light, wind, rainfall, temperature, humidity, and other details about the environment.

The applications appear limitless. If farmers had smart dust on their land, they could save money and improve their yields. It could help monitor household appliances to save energy and monitor efficiency. It can be the ultimate traffic manager if deployed in congested urban areas.

So far, the use of the sensors has been fragmented, put in place in farms, factories, and bridges to understand how these systems operate.  As the small wireless microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) measure light, vibrations, and temperature, the intimate details about the environment will begin to unfold.

CNN reports:

The wireless devices would check to see if ecosystems are healthy, detect earthquakes more rapidly, predict traffic patterns and monitor energy use. The idea is that accidents could be prevented and energy could be saved if people knew more about the world in real time, instead of when workers check on these issues only occasionally.

Scientists must be drooling: The chance to engage in long-time monitoring of temporal, climate, or human impact will change how we understand and respond to the natural world in real-time. Here are some ways that sensors are making us smarter:

  • EarthScope: 3,000 stations will unveil the mysteries of earthquakes, volcanoes, and fault systems. Several thousand sensors will be mobile and powered by sun or wind and will make its way across the U.S. over time.
  • RiverNet: Solar powered sensor network set up to monitor the Hudson River to track fertilizer runoff and the entrance of pollutants such as polychlorinated biphenyls. Real-time monitoring of water bodies will help scientists deal with water shortages and climate change.
  • Streetline: San Francisco and Los Angeles plan on installing sensors in parking spaces to help ease parking woes. The idea is to match people up to parking spaces.
  • Spacecraft-on-a-chip: The tiny sensors could give early warnings of solar storms. This was so aptly inspired by the launch of Sputnik in 1957.

The time is right to deploy sensors around the world, as the size of sensors and the cost have reached a "tipping point." Fast Company reports:

Unlike IBM, which has positioned itself as primarily a smarter city integrator, or Cisco, which has teamed up with 3M and United Technologies to handle nitty-gritty tasks while it focuses on the network, HP appears determined to fulfill its CeNSE vision from soup-to-nuts. The Shell deal not only includes sensors designed by HP Labs and fabricated by its printing group, but also HP’s own networking, storage, servers, and software products, overseen by consultants from its Enterprise Services arm (formerly EDS). "The whole world of IT is shifting into a world of plants, pipettes, and forests, and not just the back office," said Jeff Wacker, the leader of services innovation at HP and the head of its efforts to commercialize CeNSE.

Because sensors can also pick up sound and can be equipped with cameras, critics fear people will reject it and see it as an invasion of their privacy. But the information isn't uploaded on the Real World Web the way the Internet is wired, the data would be ushered directly to the company or organization collecting it. As the world spirals into a crisis more severe than the banking one, privacy concerns seem trivial.

There are some hurdles that remain: The smart dust needs to either be powered by battery or could be solar powered. Plus, we should use the sensors already out in the world. Why not use mobile phones? Phones are sensors in disguise: They have accelerometers, monitors, location, and cameras. Imagine what 5 billion mobile phone users could collect.

Now given the chance, would you opt into this smart dust club?

As the Read World Web grows and matures, we will live smarter.

Image: flickr/ samsungzone

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure