Of MEMs and motes

Once upon a recent time, MEMs and motes were technologically insignificant. A was the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and a was just a tiny spec of something, mere dust. Well, MEMs and motes are tiny still, but now they are poised to rock the world of information technology. Today MEM refers to a micro-electro-mechanical system, a tiny sensor about the size of a quarter, which is typically

Once upon a recent time, MEMs and motes were technologically insignificant. A “MEM” was the thirteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and a “mote” was just a tiny spec of something, mere dust. Well, MEMs and motes are tiny still, but now they are poised to rock the world of information technology.

Today MEM refers to a micro-electro-mechanical system, a tiny sensor about the size of a quarter, which is typically made on silicon and combines electrical and mechanical components. Pair a MEM with wireless communications in the form of an active RFID tag, and you have a mote, a tiny machine that can be designed to sense any physical or chemical change such as movement, temperature fluctuation or pressure shift and pass that information along wirelessly to another machine via mesh networking. Imagine dozens of motes scattered around a warehouse monitoring and wirelessly sending data ad hoc from mote to mote about temperature and humidity changes, for example, and you have the basic idea.

Of course, there are various other kinds of sensors and data transmitters now, but mesh networks of motes have some characteristics that give them a decided edge in many applications. Their tiny size, for starters, allows them to be placed virtually anywhere, and developers hope to shrink them to the size of a grain of rice in the not-too-distant future. They also work autonomously and wirelessly, forming dynamic networks with other motes to get the job done — no wiring, no complicated installation, no network to establish.

Such small machines are also peewee power users, sipping enough energy from small batteries to operate years without recharging.

Inside a trailer, motes might monitor cargo by the load, pallet or piece, wirelessly sending alerts if temperatures or vibrations exceed assigned limits. They might also provide security at the trailer door, wirelessly signaling if a seal is broken or a no-entry zone breached.

On the truck, motes might keep track of tire pressures, weight shifts over each axle, cab temperature, windshield wet/dry status or dozens of other conditions, passing information wirelessly. Yet another mote on the driver's hat might send a signal to sound an alarm if the driver's head suddenly nods forward in sleep.

The transforming power of this technology reaches far beyond trucking. Michael Horton is the CEO of California-based Crossbow Technologies, Inc., a major manufacturer of MEMs, motes and wireless sensor networks (www.xbow.com). Horton envisions what he calls “the global, digital nervous system,” in which computers are the brains, all various wired and wireless communications technologies form the spinal cord and neural network, and billions of MEMs and motes form the sensor organs or receptors for gathering information.

Read his essay called “The Global, Digital Nervous System” (Business Week Online, October 19, 2004) and you may never see IT the same way again. “The convergence of computer, communications, MEMS and sensor technologies is speeding the development and deployment of a global, digital nervous system that will have a profound impact on the way we live, interact and conduct business activities,” Horton predicts. “Companies who understand the power and potential of this evolving system have large opportunities to develop innovative products and services, and equally large responsibilities to ensure that the digital nervous system serves humane and positive goals.”

This is not an explanation of a technology or even a collection of technologies. It is a unified vision of an altered world, and all the pieces exist right now to make that vision a reality.

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