Not Dust, But Still Smart


by Tim Moran

Hewlett-Packard recently announced that 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," according to the article. Or, as CNN put it, "'Smart dust' aims to monitor everything."

This is just one application to come out of a decades-old idea first dreamed up by a researcher named Kris Pister, now a computing professor at UC Berkeley. In the 1990s, Pister postulated 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."

So what is this stuff? These sensors are not "flecks of dust" at all, but devices about the size of a matchbook that, when enclosed in a metal box for deployment, resemble more than anything a VHS tape. This is why some in the field are unhappy with the name: The "reality has diverged so far from the smart dust concept that it's time to dump that term in favor or something less sexy. 'Wireless sensor networks' or 'meshes' are terms finding greater acceptance with some researchers."

Nevertheless, the sheer number of sensors involved in projects such as HPs is what separates the men from the motes when it comes to recording data about the world we live in: smart dust researchers tend to speak in terms of millions, billions, and trillions of these devices rather than about hundreds or even thousands.

There's also the notion that these things are disposable, which they are most definitely not. Deborah Estrin, a professor of computer science at the UC Los Angeles and who works in the field, explains that these "sensors have to be designed for specific purposes and spread out on the land intentionally -- not scattered in the wind, as smart dust was initially pitched."

HP's will be the largest dust deployment to date. Its wireless sensors are designed to "check to see if ecosystems are healthy, detect earthquakes more rapidly, predict traffic patterns and monitor energy use." In collaboration with Royal Dutch Shell, HP plans to install a million "matchbook-size" monitors to help with oil exploration by "measuring rock vibrations and movement."

Maybe someone should have thought of sprinkling some smart dust over the rig in the Gulf of Mexico that's spewing millions of gallons of crude into the water. It's a little too late for that, but Orlando is not all that far away: perhaps BP is waiting for Tink erbell to arrive with some pixie dust.