May 4, 2010

‘Smart Dust’ Could Become A Reality

When you think of "˜smart dust"˜, you might think of common house dust that perhaps grew a brain, but nothing could be farther from the truth.

Researcher Kristofer S. J. Pister dreamed up a futuristic vision in the 1990s that revolved around tiny sensors, no bigger than a grain of rice, that could be sprinkled around like dust or sand, and could monitor everything.

"Smart dust" particles, as Pister calls them, would act like electronic nerve endings for the planet. They would be fitted with computing power, sensing equipment, and wireless radios. The smart dust would make observations of the surrounding area and relay real-time data to a central computer.

Pister's dream is now starting to become reality -- in a sense.

"It's exciting. It's been a long time coming," Pister, a computer 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," he added.

The technology, although not quite how Pister imagined it, is definitely upon us.

Hewlett-Packard recently announced it is working on a project it calls the "Central Nervous System for the Earth." The computer printing company plans to release a trillion sensors all around the planet in the coming years.

According to HP, the wireless devices will monitor ecosystems, detect earthquakes more rapidly, predict traffic patterns and observe energy usage. The concept is that crises could be prevented and energy could be saved if people knew more about the planet in real time, instead of minutes, hours or days later.

HP is planning to take the first step in about two years, Pete Hartwell, a senior researcher at HP Labs in Palo Alto, told CNN.

HP has teamed up with Royal Dutch Shell -- a petroleum corporation commonly known as Shell -- to install a million matchbook-size monitors to aid in oil exploration by measuring rock vibrations and movement, said Hartwell.

The, sensors, which have already been deployed, will cover a 6-square-mile area, the largest smart dust deployment to date, Hartwell added. He said it is time to "take the technology out of the lab and into reality."

The technology behind smart dust, introduced by Pister in 2001, has been around in science fiction since the 1960s with the release of "ËœThe Invincible', a science fiction novel written in 1964 by Stanislaw Lem.

Despite the recent buzz, there is still much confusion in the computer industry as to what smart dust really is.

The sensors HP has developed and deployed are much larger and clunkier than actual flecks of dust. The sensors are much like the ones you find in the iPhone, but are 1,000 times more powerful, and are about the size of matchbooks. When enclosed in a metal box for protection, they are the size of a VHS tape.

You may wonder what the different is between a dust sensor and a traffic monitor or weather station.

Size for one. Smart dust sensors need to be quite small and portable to be efficient. But technology hasn't evolved enough to make them on the scale of millimeters yet.

Another difference is wireless connectivity. Most building weather gauges are hard-wired. A sensor could gauge weather phenomenon, and be able to communicate wirelessly with the internet and with other sensors, making them far more efficient monitors.

What really counts though is the sheer number of sensors in a particular network, that differentiates the smart dust project from other data recorders around the world, Deborah Estrin, professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, tolf CNN.

Some experts say that reality has wandered so far from the smart dust concept that it is time to move on to new terminology of what the technology really is. Some terms floating about are "wireless sensor networks" or "meshes" that have generally been more accepted with researchers.

Estrin said that the idea behind smart dust sensors being disposable should be avoided. Sensors need to be designed for specific functions and spread out in a well-planned fashion -- not scattered in the wind, which was the original concept of smart dust.

Despite differences, researchers are excited that smart dust theory that monitors everything could benefit humanity exponentially, and the idea behind it has remained fundamentally the same.

Wireless sensors are being employed by several real-world projects that aim to take the Earth's vital signs.

Currently, wireless sensors monitor factories, farms, bridges, and other areas to promote efficiency and understanding of how these systems work, researchers expressed.

Sensor networks are employed, and deployed, for specific purposes.

For instance, a company called Streetline has installed 12,000 sensors in parking lot spaces and highways in San Francisco. The sensor in a parking space detects whether or not a vehicle is sitting in the space. Eventually, the data will be used for commuters to figure out where they can park, said Tod Dykstra, Streetline's CEO.

Sensors are also used in factories and oil refineries to monitor machines for issues that can be taken care of before they cause serious trouble.

Sensors can be used also to pick up sound. Tiny cameras can be installed on the sensors to detect the presence of vehicles or people.

David Culler, a computer science professor at UC Berkeley, told CNN that the power of these sensor networks is that they can be connected. The development of the wireless sensor is comparable to the creation of the World Wide Web. What is being created with the smart dust idea is "Real World Web," he said.

One major issue that most people will most likely have with smart dust technology is that even though the sensors are being deployed for science purposes, people may still get the Big Brother feeling -- an uncomfortable sense that their lives are under constant, secret surveillance.

"It's a very, very, very huge potential privacy invasion because we're talking about very, very small sensors that can be undetectable, effectively," said Lee Tien, an attorney for the privacy advocate Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"They are there in such numbers that you really can't do anything about them in terms of easy countermeasures," Tien told CNN. Of course this doesn't mean scientists and researchers should stop using smart dust technology, but rather be mindful of privacy of others as the work continues.

Pister said that wireless frequencies that smart dust sensors use to communicate have security features built into them. So the data is public only if the person or company that installed the sensor wants it to be, he remarked.

He continued to say that there are clearly security and privacy concerns. "The good news is that when the radio technology was being developed for this stuff, it was shortly after all of the big concerns about Wi-Fi security. ... We've got all the security tools we need underneath to make this information private."

Privacy concerns would most likely escalate if one vision for smart dust technology becomes reality. Some researchers are looking into turning mobile phones into sensors. In this case, billions of people using cellphones around the world would become the "smart dust".

Advocates for smart dust technology, and more so researchers, say the theory of monitoring the world would benefit people and the environment.

According to Pister, more information is better information.

"Having more sensors improves the efficiency of a system and reduces the demand and reduces waste," he said. "So all of that is just straight goodness."

Hartwell says the only way people can fight huge problems in the world such as climate change and biodiversity loss is to have more information about what is going on. "Frankly, I think we have to do it, from a sustainability and environmental standpoint," he said.

Hartwell says while the initial use of HP's "Central Nervous System for the Earth" project will be commercial, the motives behind the technology are selfless. "People ask me what my job is, and I say, well, I'm going to save the world," he said.


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