Monday, November 30, 2009

Hewlett Packard Goal: Central Nervous System for the Earth, aTrillion Sensors Embedded in the Environment

HP announced new inertial sensing technology that enables the development of digital micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS) accelerometers can detect a 10 femtometer change in the position of its center chip. That’s less than one-billionth the width of a human hair. As a result, it can measure changes to acceleration in the micro-gravity range. That’s about 1,000 times more sensitive than accelerometers used in a Wii, an iPhone or an automobile’s airbag system.

HP Labs senior researcher Peter Hartwell holds a prototype of a sensor network node incorporating the new MEMS accelerometer from HP. The first to be deployed as part of HP Labs’ Central Nervous System for Earth (CeNSE), it is about 1,000 times more sensitive than today’s mass-produced devices. 
Photo: Margie Wylie

A MEMS accelerometer is a sensor that can be used to measure vibration, shock or change in velocity. By deploying many of these detectors as part of a complete sensor network, HP will enable real-time data collection, management evaluation and analysis. This information empowers people to make better, faster decisions, and take subsequent action to improve safety, security and sustainability for a range of applications, such as bridge and infrastructure health monitoring, geophysical mapping, mine exploration and earthquake monitoring.

The new sensing technology represents a breakthrough in nano sensing research and uses the fluidic MEMS technology co-developed over the past 25 years by HP Labs – the company’s central research arm – and the company’s Imaging and Printing Group. 

“HP is already the world’s leading MEMS provider for fluidic devices, which are present in hundreds of millions of print cartridges each year, and we have proven capabilities for deep technology integration and commercialization into high-volume products,” said Ken Abbott, director, Emerging Technology, Technology Development Organization, HP. “This, coupled with our position as a leading technology company, uniquely positions HP to deliver sensing solutions and services on a global scale.” 

The HP sensing technology enables a new class of ultrasensitive, low-power MEMS accelerometers. Up to 1,000 times more sensitive than high-volume, commercial products, sensors based on this technology can achieve noise density performance in the sub 100 nano-g per square root Hz range to enable dramatic improvements in data quality. The MEMS device can be customized with single or multiple axes per chip to meet individual system requirements.

The sensing technology is a key enabler of HP’s vision for a new information ecosystem, the Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE). Integrating the devices within a complete system that encompasses numerous sensor types, networks, storage, computation and software solutions enables a new level of awareness, revolutionizing communication between objects and people.

“With a trillion sensors embedded in the environment – all connected by computing systems, software and services – it will be possible to hear the heartbeat of the Earth, impacting human interaction with the globe as profoundly as the Internet has revolutionized communication,” said Peter Hartwell, senior researcher, HP Labs.

Sensor nodes, however, are only part of the challenge of CeNSE. “How do you capture and use all that data?” asks Hartwell. At a typical data rate, one million sensors running 24 hours a day would require 50 hard disks running in parallel to capture the 20 petabytes of data created in just six months. “The amount of data we’re talking about here is ferocious,” says Williams.

Then it has to be crunched to extract meaningful information. No matter how many gigabytes of data a smart highway might deliver, for example, “you’re only interested in one bit when you walk out that door,” says Hartwell. “Just one bit: Which interstate highway will take you home fastest? If it saves you 20 minutes on your commute, that one bit is worth a lot,” he points out.

HP is approaching sensing networks not just as sensing or moving data or crunching it, but from a holistic perspective, says Hartwell. “We have the networking expertise in our ProCurve division, we have consulting and integration through our Enterprise Services division (formerly EDS),” not to mention business intelligence, storage and data center technologies. Williams agrees: “We’re the only company approaching this from soup to nuts.”
Listening to Earth

CeNSE’s first applications will make living on the planet safer and more convenient. But as the network grows, the breadth and detail of information it gathers could be critical to Earth’s survival, says Hartwell.

“If we’re going to save the planet, we’ve got to monitor it,” says Hartwell. “We have to understand how we’re impacting the planet,” he says, pointing out that we don’t understand how wind farms may affect rainfall or how a cooling sea changes wind currents. Hartwell imagines people volunteering their sensors to feed data to climate change models, just as unused compute cycles are unfolding proteins and unraveling genomes today.

On an individual level, sensing could help people make everyday lifestyle changes: “We have to use this capability to figure out how to change the way we do things: You can tell the kids to turn off the lights, but it’s going to be a lot more effective if the lights turn themselves off.”

A video of the technology is also available.

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