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6/13/2003
04:41 PM
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Sensors Dust For Trouble

Smart dust will gather detailed data, transmit it from one particle to the next, and communicate it in aggregate to a home base.

Advances in sensor, microprocessor, and wireless technologies are getting us closer to monitoring our surroundings than ever before. Researchers at Accenture Technology Labs are busily identifying countless environmental and business applications for a coming generation of tiny sensors called "smart dust," a technology under development at the University of California at Berkeley and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The devices, likely just a few years from being widely adopted, will form a sort of self-powering, self-configuring network designed to gather detailed data, transmit it from one particle to the next, and communicate it in aggregate to a home base. Once there, analytical software would crunch the data and recommend action.

The devices will offer the greatest advantage in settings where there are no power sources or technology infrastructure and in places where deploying larger devices would be expensive and logistically challenging, says Gary Boone, research manager at Accenture Technology Labs' Palo Alto, Calif., facility.

Boone and the team of Accenture researchers have identified several environmental uses for smart dust, including sprinkling the sensors over forests to detect potential fire hazards and using them to monitor vineyards in such detail that winegrowers would be able to ensure that each plant was getting precisely the treatment it needed. Potential commercial uses include sprinkling smart dust in manufacturing facilities to monitor equipment and using the sensors for real-time detection of even the smallest malfunction in, say, an aircraft engine.

"What you're going to do with this stuff is make digital copies of the world that you can browse," Boone says. "It's really about giving you finer eyes." He says the smart dust would also remove many of the deployment and maintenance headaches associated with larger sensor devices. "We'd toss 'em out into the environment, and if one of them breaks, so what."

The smallest prototypes of the devices have been about the size of an aspirin tablet, but Boone says the technology will follow the principles of Moore's Law, and that sand-grain-sized smart dust devices will be available for a few dollars, if not pennies, within a few years. He expects large-scale adoption of the technology to follow shortly thereafter.

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