HP Labs has joined the race to build an infrastructure for the emerging Internet of Things. The giant computing and IT services company has announced a project that aims to be a “Central Nervous System for the Earth” (CeNSE). It’s a research and development program to build a planetwide sensing network, using billions of “tiny, cheap, tough and exquisitely sensitive detectors.”

The technology behind this is based on nano-sensing research done by HP Labs. The sensors are similar to RFID chips, but in this case they are tiny accelerometers which detect motion and vibrations.

The first CeNSE sensor to be put into the field by HP Labs is, according to the company, “about 1,000 times more sensitive than accelerometers used in a Wii, an iPhone or an automobile’s airbag system.” Other sensors planned in future include ones for light, temperature, barometric pressure, airflow and humidity.

Use Cases

Peter Hartwell, senior researcher and project team lead, listed some example use cases for these sensing nodes. The nodes could be “stuck to bridges and buildings to warn of structural strains or weather conditions [and] they might be scattered along roadsides to monitor traffic, weather and road conditions.” A bridge like the San Francisco Golden Gate might take 10,000 nodes, said Hartwell.

Other uses include embedding the CeNSE nodes in everyday electronics, tracking hospital equipment, sniffing out pesticides and pathogens in food. Ultimately they may even “recognize” the person using them and adapt.

According to HP Labs, CeNSE sensors will enable real-time data collection, analysis and better decision making.

Potential Issues

This is an ambitious project by HP Labs and there are other large IT companies, such as IBM, building out similar platforms for sensor data and services.

HP senior fellow Stan Williams noted that for CeNSE to work, “we have to make sensors that are vastly more sensitive than anything else that have ever existed before, while being absolutely dirt cheap so that we can deploy them in very large numbers.”

RFID technology has had numerous cost and technology issues over the past decade, so HP Labs will surely run into similar real-world obstacles in this project. HP Labs admits that existing sensitive detectors are expensive; but it hopes to make them much cheaper.

The Race to Build a Worldwide Sensor Network

HP Labs’ ultimate aim is to have a worldwide network of these CeNSE sensors. A trillion of them “should do the trick,” says HP. The company is hoping that at that scale, sensor nodes will cost “next to nothing, yet measure everything.” HP is also positioning this, boldly, as a technology that could “save the planet” by enabling it to be monitored.

These are big claims and the proof will be in the pudding. One thing is for certain: sensor technology will become as pervasive as HP Labs says it will, in due course. The questions that remain unanswered though are: how long will it take, and which company (or companies) will gain the biggest footholds in this network?