The physical world & IT

Smart dust is almost magical stuff, so powerful and rich in potential that it deserves a science fiction series all its own a la Harry Potter or the Hardy Boys, except that smart dust is not fiction. It is a term for very real, very tiny machines called motes that pair micro-electro-mechanical systems or sensors (MEMS) with wireless communications in the form of active RFID tags. About the size of

Smart dust” is almost magical stuff, so powerful and rich in potential that it deserves a science fiction series all its own a la Harry Potter or the Hardy Boys, except that smart dust is not fiction. It is a term for very real, very tiny machines called motes that pair micro-electro-mechanical systems or sensors (MEMS) with wireless communications in the form of active RFID tags.

About the size of a quarter or even smaller, battery-powered motes can be designed to sense any physical or chemical change and pass that information wirelessly along to another machine — no wiring, no complicated installations, no network to establish. The peewee sized motes handle the whole job autonomously, by forming dynamic “mesh networks” with other motes.

So what can you actually do with this new capability? Plenty, according to some smart dust visionaries, who are actively exploring ways to use this new technology to address some of the world's toughest problems, from conserving energy to monitoring for radioactive or biological contamination.

Last November, for example, Rob Conant, co-founder and v.p., marketing and business development for Dust Networks, Inc. (www.dustnetworks.com) wrote an article about the energy crisis in which he posed a compelling question: “What if the same inspiration that reduced enterprise financial inefficiencies was brought to bear on energy consumption?… The two different worlds of energy controls and network management systems are about to collide. Data from the physical world-like temperature, light level, humidity, energy consumption, location, etc.-is about to enter the world of IT.” (Rob Conant, “Creating tech's role in energy conservation, c/net News.Com http://news.com, November 10, 2005).

This is not hyperbole. In 2005, Dust Networks was recognized by the State of California as a leader in energy efficiency with a 2005 Flex Your Power Award for their SmartMesh-XR technology, a wireless monitoring and control communications product designed to use smart dust technology to collect information on energy consumption, allowing businesses to optimize energy use.

Another SmartMesh solution is designed to reduce maintenance costs and machinery downtime at industrial plants by wirelessly monitoring essential equipment on a continuous basis to detect conditions that may cause problems or failures, such as excessive vibration, low lubrication or insufficient cooling. It does not take an engineer to imagine how this might be of use to the trucking industry, as well. Think of wirelessly and continuously monitoring engine temperature, battery charge, coolant levels, tire pressure, or cargo vibration — and that is only a start.

Other companies besides Smart Dust are also busy looking for applications for smart dust technology. Crossbow Technology, Inc. sponsored a Smart Dust Challenge in 2005, offering a $10,000 grand-prize for the best executable idea for wireless sensor networking that could be deployed to positively impact society (www.xbow.com).

Maybe it is time for trucking to knock on this new technology door and invite the smart dust developers over to our industry to talk about how combining data from the physical world with IT could help us create better solutions for some of our own toughest challenges on trucks, at docks, in warehouses and in offices. Who knows what we might be able to accomplish that we never even imagined was possible — at least not yet?

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