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Smart Dust Collecting in the Enterprise

It's about the size of a grain of sand, but when used in massive amounts, it could monitor chemical spills, track packages or even let you type without a keyboard.

Smart Dust may seem like science fiction, but it is making its way from the research labs and into the enterprise courtesy of companies like Intel and San Jose, Calif.-based Crossbow.

Originally part of a larger project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense central research and development group, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaking giant has worked with the University of California, Berkeley to create cubic millimeter-sized sensors, or "motes."

The groups say the idea is to combine Radio Frequency (RF) communication technology and MEMS technology and use it to monitor situations where humans may not be able to go such as Mars or perhaps telling you when the milk in the refrigerator is about to go bad.

Among commercial companies investing in Smart Dust solutions, Honeywell International says it is looking at the motes for climate control applications. San Jose, Calif.-based Digital Sun said it is receiving orders for wireless sensors that monitor irrigation.

Now Intel is looking to make Smart Dust more widespread in the market. Back in January 2002, Intel's Capital division invested an unspecified amount of cash and resources in Crossbow to develop the next level beyond ubiquitous computing. The two companies are continuing to work together and have come up with a second-generation operating system for the smart dust.

Known as TinyOS, version 1.1.0 of the software is helping Crossbow customers deploy wireless sensor mesh networks in a wide spectrum of sectors.

At the Wireless Communications Alliance (WCA) technical applications and networking meeting earlier this month, Crossbow chief engineer for wireless technology, Alan Broad said the development of small, low-power sensor networks is turning into contracts for monitoring applications in areas such as the military, security, climate control, agriculture, retail and others.

"TinyOS is a flexible open-source software platform that works on fewer than 8 kilobytes of memory," Broad said. "The OS supports multiple hardware platforms and a wide variety of sensor cards, thus enabling the development of smart sensor networks that communicate with wireless and wired networks."

Among the many enhancement, the upgraded TinyOS includes a many-to-one collection-oriented, ad-hoc routing system, which has been tested and evaluated both in controlled and deployment conditions such as Intel's experiments on Great Duck Island in Maine.

In the spring of 2002, the Intel's Research Lab at Berkeley began working with the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor and the University of California at Berkeley to install wireless sensor networks on Great Duck Island. The networks monitored the microclimates in and around nesting burrows used by the local waterfowl.

At the end of November 2002, well over 1 million readings had been logged from 32 motes strategically placed on the island. By 2003 a second generation network was added comprised of 56 nodes. The network was again expanded to 49 additional nodes in July and more than 60 more burrow nodes with 25 new weather station nodes were installed in August. The researchers say the nodes form a multihop network transferring their data back "bucket brigade" style through dense forest. Some nodes are more than 1000 feet deep in the forest providing data through a low power wireless transceiver.

I just inhaled a mote! Now what?
Despite their capabilities as a group however, not all motes are created equal.

A mote is run by a microcontroller that not only determines the tasks performed by the mote, but controls power to the various components of the system to conserve energy. Periodically the microcontroller gets a reading from one of the sensors, which measure one of a number of physical or chemical stimuli such as temperature, ambient light, vibration, acceleration, or air pressure, processes the data, and stores it in memory. It also occasionally turns on the optical receiver to see if anyone is trying to communicate with it. Researchers say the communication may include new programs or messages from other motes. In response to a message or upon its own initiative the microcontroller will use the corner cube retro reflector or laser to transmit sensor data or a message to a base station or another mote.

Brett Warneke, a PhD candidate in the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center (BSAC) in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Department at UC Berkeley has come up with two prevalent forms: Golem Dust and Daft Dust.

Golem Dust is solar powered with bi-directional communications and sensing (acceleration and ambient light). Shaped like a cubicle, the mote is 11.7-cubic millimeters (cmm) and could fit more than a dozen on a penny. Daft Dust is a little larger. At 63-cmm, it is a bi-directional communication mote that is shaped more like an upside-down bowl. A third mote developed by Warneke's counterpart Bryan Atwood is being called Flashy Dust, which is a 138-cmm uni-directional communication and sensing (ambient light) mote.

Despite all the promises, critics say the dark side to Smart Dust centers on privacy issues, which BSAC co-director and Dust Inc. founder Kris Pister is quick to dismiss.

"Yes, personal privacy is getting harder and harder to come by," he said. "Every technology has a dark side - deal with it. As an engineer, or a scientist, or a hair stylist, everyone needs to evaluate what they do in terms of its positive and negative effect. If I thought that the negatives of working on this project were larger than or even comparable to the positives, I wouldn't be working on it. As it turns out, I think that the potential benefits of this technology far, far outweigh the risks to personal privacy."

Another concern by critics is that there will be a major environmental impact as a result of the motes flying around the atmosphere. Pister said, "not to worry!"

"If by ill chance you did inhale one, he said, it would be just like inhaling a gnat," he said. "You'd cough it up post-haste. Unpleasant, but not very likely."

More likely, said Pister is the continued use of Smart Dust in commercial applications such as a virtual keyboard.

"Glue a dust mote on each of your fingernails," Pister said. "Accelerometers will sense the orientation and motion of each of your fingertips, and talk to the computer in your watch. QWERTY is the first step to proving the concept, but you can imagine much more useful and creative ways to interface to your computer if it knows where your fingers are: sculpt 3D shapes in virtual clay, play the piano, gesture in sign language and have to computer translate."

In a warehouse scenario, Pister said Smart Dust could be used to have a carton communicate with a the box, a box talk to the palette, the palette signals information to the truck, and the truck relays the information to the warehouse, which in turn disseminates the collective statistics to the Internet. In that way companies could pinpoint where their products are and what shape they're in any time, anywhere.

"It's sort of like FedEx tracking on steroids for all products in your production stream from raw materials to delivered goods," he said.

Other applications being considered for Smart Dust include monitoring impact, vibration, temp monitoring of consumer electronics failure analysis and diagnostic information.

In one situation, the Center for the Built Environment has plans for the office of the future in which environmental conditions are tailored to the desires of every individual.

"Maybe soon we'll all be wearing temperature, humidity, and environmental comfort sensors sewn into our clothes, continuously talking to our workspaces which will deliver conditions tailored to our needs," Pister said. "No more fighting with your office mates over the thermostat."