‘Smart dust’ aims to monitor everything

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
By Paul Martin

By John D. Sutter
CNN.com

Palo Alto, California (CNN) — In the 1990s, a researcher named Kris Pister dreamed up a wild future in which people would sprinkle the Earth with countless tiny sensors, no larger than grains of rice.

These “smart dust” particles, as he called them, would monitor everything, acting like electronic nerve endings for the planet. Fitted with computing power, sensing equipment, wireless radios and long battery life, the smart dust would make observations and relay mountains of real-time data about people, cities and the natural environment.

Now, a version of Pister’s smart dust fantasy is starting to become reality.

“It’s exciting. It’s been a long time coming,” said Pister, a computing professor at the University of California, Berkeley.

“I coined the phrase 14 years ago. So smart dust has taken a while, but it’s finally here.”

Maybe not exactly how he envisioned it. But there has been progress.

The latest news comes from the computer and printing company Hewlett-Packard, which recently announced it’s working on a project it calls the “Central Nervous System for the Earth.” In coming years, the company plans to deploy a trillion sensors all over the planet.

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.

HP will take its first step toward this goal in about two years, said Pete Hartwell, a senior researcher at HP Labs in Palo Alto. The company has made plans with Royal Dutch Shell to install 1 million matchbook-size monitors to aid in oil exploration by measuring rock vibrations and movement, he said. Those sensors, which already have been developed, will cover a 6-square-mile area.

That will be the largest smart dust deployment to date, he said.

“We just think now, the technology has reached a point where it makes basic sense for us … to get this out of the lab and into reality,” Hartwell said.

Smart dust (minus the ‘dust’)

The Rest…HERE

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