• Technology
  • The Economist

Desirable Dust

How smart sensors can monitor the real world.

When peripatetic futurologists such as John Gage of Sun Microsystems really want to impress their audience, they talk about “smart dust”. The concept is indeed intriguing. The dust in question is made up of tiny, wireless sensors that could be dispersed anywhere—say, over a battlefield to find out where enemy troops are, or whether chemical or biological weapons have been used.

This is not science fiction. Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley led by Kris Pister, a professor of electrical engineering, are already working on a smart-dust prototype the size of a small nailhead. A klunkier version can already be bought from a Silicon Valley start-up, Crossbow Technology.

It may be decades before smart dust is dispersed over real battlefields, but the tiny devices are at the forefront of an important technological trend that is often underestimated: the spread of sensors and tags. New manufacturing processes, wireless technology and intelligent software are making them ever smaller, smarter and, most important, cheaper. As with microprocessors and lasers in earlier decades, the novelty is not that these sensors exist at all, but that they have suddenly become cheap enough to be used in ordinary everyday products, says Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think-tank.

Electronic Nose, Anyone?

Perhaps to an even greater extent than better software, wireless sensors and tags play a big part in making the real-time economy happen. Whether they are tiny thermometers, miniature microphones, electronic noses, location detectors or motion sensors, all of them provide ever more information about the physical world, meaning that firms can add ever more cells to their corporate spreadsheets. Small wonder that forecasters expect the technology to become a huge business. The global market for sensors alone will reach more than $50 billion in 2008, according to Intechno Consulting, a consultancy in Basle, Switzerland.

Sensors are nothing new in expensive machinery, where an unexpected breakdown can be costly. What makes them so much more useful is that they are increasingly connected. General Electric has long been equipping some of its aircraft engines, turbines and locomotives with all kinds of sensors, but until recently the data were not available in real time. Now all the information is regularly transmitted via satellite to a GE remote-monitoring centre. If there is something wrong with a jet engine, for instance, the facility identifies the likely cause and tells the airline about it.

Remote monitoring also allows classic old-economy companies to deliver high-tech services. For example, SKF, a Swedish bearing manufacturer, uses sensors to measure the vibrations of machinery at strategic positions and feed the data into analysis software that can determine when a bearing is about to fail. Users can then arrange for its replacement. This is particularly useful in manufacturing processes where downtime is expensive, such as in car factories or paper mills.

Monitoring systems are also appearing in more everyday settings, for example in ice-dispensing machines in supermarkets. Sensors in “Ice Factories”, operated by Dallas-based Packaged Ice, are able to obtain real-time data on dozens of conditions. Is the ice at the right temperature? Are the bags sealed correctly? Has a light bulb burned out? If something has gone wrong, the machines automatically alert the company so it can send someone round to solve the problem.

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