Where will the ‘smart dust’ settle?

Should the world be frightened or encouraged by the future potential of “”smart dust””?

It’s a question that has emerged in Ottawa after some high-tech experts described a futuristic scenario involving an emerging technology that comprises sensors the size of a grain of sand, or motes. The

sensors contain wireless communications devices, allowing them to talk to one other autonomously.

The subject of motes came up during a recent seminar at the National Capital Institute of Telecommunications (NCIT). And Herb Woods, chair of the Ottawa Wireless Cluster, is still talking about it.

Picture this, he said: Security devices situated at the entryway of a store are armed with particles of smart dust. When an unwitting customer enters the store, the sensors shoot out of the security device at ankle level and stick to the customer’s clothing. From there, they track the customer’s movements and send the information back to an under-the-counter sensor. The information includes how long a customer idles at a certain section of the store, providing a picture of which products they are potentially interested in. This becomes powerful marketing data for retail chains.

Obviously, people are going to have privacy concerns over being tracked when entering businesses, Woods said. Co-attendees of the NCIT gathering agreed this a “”scary”” use of smart dust, which is now being developed by scientists at the University of Berkeley in California in conjunction with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a central research and development organization for the US Department of Defense.

However, Jim Carroll, a Toronto-based futurist and author, said there is always a tendency for people to paint an “”Orwellian”” picture whenever new technology comes out. The same thing happened when the Internet was first introduced a decade ago, he said.

Besides, no retailer who wants to maintain a good reputation is going to use smart dust to track unwitting customers, said Carroll, adding there’s just too much at stake in terms of public perception.

Kris Pister, lead investigator of the smart dust project at Berkeley, urges people to realize there is a dark side to every technology.

“”Deal with it,”” he writes on his Web site. “”If I thought 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 outweigh the risks to personal privacy.””

Indeed, the applications are far-reaching, Woods said. For starters, micro-sensors can potentially be embedded in every single consumer product.

“”They would have some identifier, and you could have various levels of intelligence to keep track of the product’s life.””

Knowing the product’s history has become increasingly important in the wake of recent mad-cow scares in Alberta and the U.S., he said. In fact, the Canadian and U.S. governments are both headed toward mandating the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on all cattle so the entire supply chain can be tracked, Woods noted, suggesting smart dust could be a future consideration for such tracking and tracing efforts.

For Terrance Sullivan, president and chief technology officer of Ottawa-based eXray, smart dust will have an immense impact on industrial applications such as mining. If one sensor is on a skid loader and another is on the pallet that weighs it, operators can determine how much ore is in the bucket, he said. This data gets passed to central office which figures out the extraction rate of that section of the mine, he said, adding such information can quickly tell the company whether it’s cost-effective to continue mining that area.

“”From a commercial point of view, you’re going to have sensors embedded throughout your whole enterprise. They are going to increasingly be plugged into an infrastructure that evaluates what the sensor data is and applying it to your bottom line. You’re going to see all this stuff in real time,”” he said, adding the “”real revolution”” is that micro-sensors signal the entry into a new arena where there are smart devices talking to each other with no human intervention.

Carroll foresees a flood control application, where sensors are embedded in bridge abutments. There, they might measure a river’s flow, temperature, height, level, and speed.

“”We could put those all along a river valley and build an intelligent system behind that. We would have the opportunity to monitor and manage potential flooding.””

Among the challenges faced by this technology are cost and power. But Carroll believes the cost will eventually fall under Moore’s Law and become “”dirt cheap.””

Sullivan said the real challenge is how to get these micro-machines to manage their own energy. Currently, there’s not a lot of life in such sensors, “”maybe a few hours or a few days at best.””

While batteries don’t cut it, solar energy may be an option, he said.

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