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It starts with sensors: A multi-part look at HP’s Central Nervous System for the Earth

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HP’s vision for a Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE) is leading to a new generation of computer networks that are aware of the environment in which they operate. 


Those systems promise to help us better understand how we are affecting the planet, and to suggest specific actions that we can take to live more sustainably. 


But how do you get these networks to actually be aware: to taste, touch, smell, see and hear? 


“You’ve got to turn those notions into quantities you can measure,” answers Peter Hartwell, leader of the digital microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) team in HP’s Information and Quantum Systems Lab.


We already have cheap but high-quality sight and sound sensors, Hartwell points out.  “Just pull out a modern cell phone and it's got a good microphone and most have multi-megapixel cameras on the back.” 


Sensors that can record touch – called accelerometers - have been slower to develop, though.  They are being used in consumer applications like vehicle airbags, game controllers, and smartphones.  But Hartwell and colleagues have created a groundbreaking new accelerometer (which detects both motion and vibration) that is around 1,000 times more sensitive than the typical ones on the market.

 

 

This new sensor is being deployed in HP’s first real-world application of CeNSE – a collaboration with Royal Dutch Shell that promises to help the oil company avoid the environmental impact of drilling unnecessary wells thanks to data it can glean from a high-resolution seismic imaging network.


MEMS for that application must be rugged enough to work in remote locations.  They also have to be packaged with a wireless radio, a battery and a solar cell to give it power.  Plus they need to be not much larger than a pushpin in size. “It’s a challenging integration problem," says Hartwell.

 

But it’s also one HP is highly familiar with – millions of MEMS are already at work in its inkjet printer cartridges, which are similarly complex and sturdily built. “In both cases,” Hartwell notes, “you have a complex chip that must be exposed to the environment—to measure it or to squirt ink onto it—and packaged into an integrated unit.”


HP’s experience with inkjets gives it a huge head start, says Jonathan Eunice, an analyst with Illuminata.  Expertise in miniaturization, he suggests, “has enormous impact on what you can sense, and whether you can afford to sense things.”


The cheaper sensors get, the more you can afford to deploy, which means you can take more measurements, says Eunice, “and basically when you’re talking about science or engineering, more measurements, more data points, leads to better results.”


New sensors that can ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ better are Hartwell’s next targets.  Sensitivity to chemical and biological changes in the environment expands the potential of CeNSE enormously: from bomb-sniffing luggage trackers, to systems that detect pathogens in food, to state-wide early warning networks that can measure the spread of toxins through the air. 

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