Tuesday, January 4, 2011

DARPA and Smart Dust

Why do I think the next secular bull market will be based on some combination of materials science, advanced manufacturing and nanotechnology?

From the American Ceramic Society:

Missouri S&T gets funding to develop battlefield ’smart dust’

Smart dust components. (Credit: University of California Berkeley Robotics
and Intelligent Machines Lab.)
A significant trend in electronics technology is the increasing ability to provide adaptive features into smaller and smaller electronic devices. An example of this technology trend are electronic motes. Electronic motes are devices that can:
  • Support the collection and integration of data form a variety of miniature sensors.
  • Analyze the sensor data as specified by system level controls.
  • Wirelessly communicate the results of their analyzes to other motes, system base stations and the internet as specified by system automation.
Motes are also sometimes referred to as smart dust. One mote is composed of a small, low powered and cheap computer connected to several sensors and a radio transmitter capable of forming ad hoc networks. The computer monitors the different sensors in a mote. These sensors can measure light, acceleration, position, stress, pressure, humidity, sound and vibration. Data gathered are passed on to the radio link for transmission from mote to mote until data reaches the transmission node.

One of the original developers of motes was the DARPA. The defense angles are pretty obvious. For example, In conjunction with a remotely piloted vehicle, a GPS sensor, a magnetometer and a radio transmitter, battlefield commanders would have a clear picture of the field and enemy location and thus would be able to react accordingly without resorting to the use of mines. Other potential applications include intruder surveillance, robot-based sensor collections and manufacturing process surveillance.

To further military surveillance technology, Missouri S&T has been awarded $4.465 million through the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. According to an S&T press release, the funds will be spent developing motes that can detect the presence of various chemicals, electronic signatures and human activity.

Jagannathan Sarangapani, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at S&T and principal investigator for the project, says the motes are capable of sharing information with each other and even interacting with existing Wi-Fi networks to spread messages. In the battlefield, the motes would be deployed in dangerous areas to effectively “listen in the wind” for evidence that someone is in a sensitive or restricted area.

The sensor side of motes is pretty well figured out. However, since Sarangapan and others at Missouri S&T selected to work on this project are all experts in electrical and computer engineering, that suggests the hurdles now have to do with how to actually power the sensors, securely network them and extract useful real time data. That’s no small task. S&T will also be working with two small businesses to help make the technology more feasible: KalScott Engineering in Lawrence, Kan., and Avetec in Springfield, Ohio. The former is experienced in remote sensing and delivering UAV data; the latter brings expertise in computer modeling and integrating complex systems.

But, the ideas for possible application and use of motes in just about any field is limitless. They can be used in conjunction with power meters, water meters and other utility meters to transmit data automatically to a central node or to an electromagnetic truck capable of temporarily powering up the motes in a certain area. Moreover, they can be used in agriculture to give a clear picture of the temperature, humidity, water level, etc for a given location. Motes can be embedded into structures to give constant or periodic reports on structural integrity such as salt content levels in concrete. Furthermore, motes can be used in traffic management and monitoring by placing these devices on major intersections and streets.

One of the limiting factors in the development of motes is the battery. Although a bigger battery would mean a longer life for the mote and farther transmission capabilities for its radio link, smaller motes with smaller batteries are usually more versatile and flexible. Some form of energy scavenging is probably in the works for the motes.
As the Mandarin speaking partner says to me: "What is cooking?".