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HP plans a trillion-sensor global stethoscope

Hearing the heartbeat of the Earth

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Getting the vision thing right is important for technology announcements and HP has it nailed, twinning a great vision with advances in its sensing technology.

Here's Peter Hartwell, a senior researcher at HP Labs: "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 revolutionised communication." Okay Peter, we're paying attention now.

The meat of this concerns digital MEMS (micro-electrical-mechanical system) - accelerometers that signal a change in physical force impinging on them. They are built into sensors that detect acceleration, shock loading and vibration. Hard disk drives that park their heads when dropped use this technology. HP says its printer ink cartridges use it too. Its HP Labs has developed MEMS technology that's up to 1,000 times more sensitive than current high-volume MEMS.

It means they can detect and respond to flutters as well as shakes. That implies they can be used to better monitor the status of buildings and bridges, fault zones in the earth, mining operations and volcanoes. In fact, any application where detecting microscopically small vibration events or patterns is important.

HP says the technology involved nano-sensing research and uses fluidic MEMS technology, co-developed by HP Labs and its Imaging and Printing Group. It claims ultrasensitive, low-power "sensors based on this technology can achieve noise density performance in the sub 100 nano-g per square root Hz range". Such sensors "can be customised with single or multiple axes per chip to meet individual system requirements."

The vision thing then gets glued to commercial interests, with Ken Abbott - an HP emerging technology director - gleefully talking about how "this... positions HP to deliver sensing solutions and services on a global scale." HP also grandiloquently talks about "a new information ecosystem, the Central Nervous System for the Earth (CeNSE)" - with a trillion new MEMS sensors dotted around the globe. ®

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