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May 3, 2010

Scientists try to turn people into 'smart dust'

Posted: 11:08 AM ET

Scientists are in the process of putting tiny wireless sensors all over the globe.

HP wants to install a trillion of these "smart dust" sensors, which initially were going to be the size of dust particles but, at least for now, look more like matchbooks. The aim is to get more information about how cities and the environment work - and then use that data to be more efficient and create less environmental damage.

But the idea of deploying a trillion sensors in the environment is tricky in some ways. The sensors have to have batteries that last a long time or are able to gather energy from the sun or waves in the ocean. They also might require maintenance from time to time, which would be cumbersome on such a huge scale.

That leads some computer scientists to say, "skip the wireless sensors."

Why not just use people and their phones to collect data about the world?

There will be 5 billion mobile phone subscriptions by years' end, according to the International Telecommunication Union. Many of those are equipped with sensing technology: They have cameras, location monitors and accelerometers.

By tacking on temperature trackers, air quality monitors and the like, these phones could become a vast and potentially useful network of wireless monitors, scattered all over the Earth.

Here are a few examples of how this is starting to happen:

  • Researchers Allison Woodruff and Alan Mainwaring at Intel Research have developed a prototype for a phone that could record air quality measurements and send them back to a database.
  • The U.S. National Parks Service has an active project called What's Invasive! to use mobile phone photos to track invasive species through protected lands.
  • Elizabeth Cochran, an assistant professor of seismology at the University of California at Riverside, has developed a network of 1,400 computers called the Quake Catcher Network that records the Earth's vibrations and, in effect, can be used as real-time earthquake monitors.

Cochran hopes to move this technology from laptops to mobile phones soon. If that network is expanded, people could get up to 60 seconds of warning before a quake hits.

"That would be enough to get under a table, maybe shut off the gas if you're cooking something on the stove," she said.

Would you be willing to be part of this "smart dust" network? There are obvious privacy concerns with the idea. To send in air quality data, for example, you would also have to send in information about where the data was collected, which would tell someone where you are, potentially all the time, if the data are collected continuously.

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Sency   May 3rd, 2010 1:57 pm ET

what is the point of the sensors, if like the article says, there are cell phones in every pocket

brakabaka   May 3rd, 2010 9:15 pm ET

is it just me, or is big brother evolving? I mean sure it's a neat concept, but I think this just might cross the line. 😐

Jonathan   May 4th, 2010 1:56 am ET

I can see where a corporation would think this was a good idea... I'm an HP user and big fan, but the whole concept seems like a waste of resources. For example, we already have VERY good eatherquake monitors, traffic cameras, temperature stations, radar, etc.

HP is just hoping someone out there will pay them for a million, billion, or trillion of these sensors... Hmmm perhaps our government? They would do something like that...

Susan   May 4th, 2010 3:03 am ET

As long as it is voluntary, it may be a huge leap forward. It's impossible to predict how science–or medicine–might use it. Sixty seconds of warning before an earthquake may not sound like much to people who don't live in the ring of fire. But right now we have no warning at all. And I'd be glad to let them monitor air quality thru my phone.

anton   May 4th, 2010 7:09 am ET

I think it's a waist of money that can be spend on more needed projects that can help mankind right now,all the tecnology is allready at hand through cellphones and www. Big Brother is evolving while i wonder where it will eventually end up....

Ted   May 4th, 2010 10:59 am ET

Blimy That teriffic...Now if only HP could come up with a driver for there buy the printer take it home plug it in then print....
yea I know.I'm asking to much....sigh.

"Smart Dust" will soon be everywhere, might already be in your phones | LogicHP - HP Laptop Coupons, Deals, Reviews, News, and Forum   May 4th, 2010 12:55 pm ET

[...] project is taking shape today, staying secure and progressing into the future – including speculation that our mobile phones will one day turn us all into walking "smart dust" sensors.  A [...]

Building a Real World Web with smart dust - SmartPlanet   May 7th, 2010 9:46 am ET

[...] 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. [...]

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