This week has seen the FedEx and IBM talking about plans for wireless sensor networking. Not that that's what they call it, mind. They're more likely to talk about smart packages or smart infrastructure, but at heart, both reflect an integration of sensors, communications, and processing to enable complex intelligence gathering in a way that previously only cropped up in science fiction.
Let's take the announcements in order. In "Smart phones. Smart networks. Smart packages?" Stephanie Mehta, writing for Fortune's Brainstorm Tech blog, explains FedEx's new Web-based service, slated for release in 2010 and named SenseAware. The multi-sensor package includes GPS and the data collected are sent to a Web-based interface to allow customers to see exactly what's happening with their packages. From a quick look at the service overview, it looks like the sensors include those for temperature (a no-brainer), light (to check whether the package has been opened in transit) and I'm going to guess probably some kind of accelerometer to measure shock, coupled with GPS and a wireless transmitter of some ilk. This is a natural extension to the existing tracking systems and extends more sophisticated asset tracking services through the transportation network. Pretty cool, yes?
Next up, IBM, who are very big on putting technology to work to solve problems. The company has spearheaded several efforts to put networks to use for everything from food safety, utility maintenance, relieving traffic gridlock, to environmental monitoring and water management. The Fortune article, "IBM's grand plan to save the planet" highlights some of the projects and rationale behind them. Key to all of the efforts is leveraging existing networks and technologies to create what the company terms intelligent infrastructures: projects where sensing, communications, and analysis are combined to allow you to do things better and smarter.
At a smaller scale (sort of), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has awarded GE Global Research a grant to develop wearable RFID sensors that can detect chemicals in the air. The article, "Grant for wearable sensor project" from The Engineer Online describes a little about the project. Central to the project is the use of a novel RFID-based sensing platform. This enables sensing, identification, and the collection of larger amounts of data on the population wearing the sensor. Again, the aim is more data, better data, to achieve better information, and the combination of sensing and communication is key to this aim.
I can't be the only person to find these efforts exciting. Not least because, once these various networks are fully in place, additional sensing modalities can be added in, increasing the variety of information we can gather.