Shake Hands with The Borg

Jul 18, 2006

John Webster

On average, I do a speaking engagement once a month to IT professionals. At some point during my presentation I ask for a show of hands to this question: Who knows what “motes” are?

Every now and then a hand goes up. I’m continually amazed at how little the IT community knows about these little yet powerful devices. They have been written-up in scientific and computing journals, and yet few IP professionals are aware of their existence.

I had lunch almost two years ago with a VP of IT from one of the large financial services firms. He not only knew about motes but was fascinated by their power potential. He was the exception rather than the rule.

Motes are very small, battery powered computers that allow discrete electronic sensing devices to communicate wirelessly with not only a centralized system, but with each other as well. They share a common, distributed operating system called TinyOS as well as a distributed data base called (you guessed it) TinyDB.

Star Trek fans may remember The Borg—telepathic humanoids that knew each other thoughts and acted as individuals yet with a group consciousness. Think of motes as computing’s version of The Borg.

Motes were originally created by researchers at the University of California at Berkley and Intel. TinyOS and TinyDB are products of the open source community. Development on both the hardware and software fronts is now being pursued by more than 100 groups around the world today who are using motes in a long list of applications.

For example, suppose that you run a chemical manufacturing plant and you need to implement a system that not only detects chemical spills the moment they happen, but also identify the location of the spill and direct workers to a safe location or safe exit from the plant.

You could combine electronic chemical sensing devices with mote technology. Now you have devices that can be deployed quickly and precisely where they need to be because they communicate wirelessly and are battery powered, and can determine the location and direction of movement of a chemical spill because they all communicate with each other. In fact, they form an invisible, sensory mesh.

Here’s what I think is maybe the coolest thing about motes: This incredibly powerful technology is within easy reach of just about anyone with some money to spare and a genuine interest in learning how these little critters work.

You can buy them right now, online, for less than $25.00 each. You could attach motion sensors to them and create a motion detection mesh that could be deployed in a warehouse, or a forest, or even your own house or apartment. On the other hand, a governmental group (large metropolitan city, for example) could arm thousands of them with radiation sensors as defense against a “dirty bomb” attack.

The list of potential applications is as long as the list of things that can be sensed electronically—light, sound, and vibration come to mind immediately.

So now that you know what motes are, give free reign to your imagination. Just Google and you’ll find them. Then ask yourself: What could a small army of motes do for me?

John Webster is senior analyst and founder of Data Mobility Group. He has held the positions of director of Computing Research with Yankee Group’s Management Strategies Planning Service, and Senior Analyst with International Data Corp. He is also the co-author of a book entitled “Inescapable Data – Harnessing the Power of Convergence” (Prentice Hall, 2005).


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