Sensors are already all around us, monitoring everything from the tire pressure in our cars to the weather. They are increasingly becoming part of the “Internet of things,” where nearly everything from cans, books, and shoes to car parts are tracked in a seamless wireless network. And biosensors – tiny devices triggered into action by biological changes – are already here today. These advances are raising questions about the right to privacy and the right (or perceived need) to sense. For example, what happens when the robots used to place sensors start to resemble the creatures of the natural world? Or, that they become so small at the nanoscale that they are imperceptible to the naked human eye?
“MAVs” (short for Micro Aerial Vehicles) are small flying robots that can be used to place sensors. These bio-inspired robots are being used to investigate landing, perching, and taking off from arbitrary vertical surfaces using small animals including birds, bats, spiders and flying lizards as models. Like colorful parrots high in the trees of the Amazonian jungle, they are able to perch (attach and detach on command) not just in trees, but on painted concrete walls. Prototypes have been developed at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and Stanford University.
Mirko Kovac, from EPFL’s Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, is a young robotics engineer who is known for his grasshopper-inspired jumping robot. He and his colleagues have created a perching mechanism where a MAV robot flies head first into an object such as a tree or a wall, and attaches to the surface using sharp prongs. It then detaches on command. Kovac talks about his creation in this video:
He envisions swarms of these flying bots thrown out of airplanes with sensors to determine — for example — the direction and the rate of spread for a forest fire or other natural disaster. Clearly, such technology could be also be used to determine the direction and rate of spread of a crowd during a riot.
The research at Stanford builds on recent accomplishments in the control of autonomous low speed maneuvers for MAVs and in the design and control of robots that climb and maneuver on vertical surfaces. The Stanford MAV uses a rudder and elevator to control pitch and yaw and has small propellers on the wing tips to control for roll using an open source autopilot. Rather than landing like an arrow like the EPFL MAV, it uses onboard electronics to orient itself relative to a surface as shown in this video:
“Mites” are engineered nanoprobes perhaps first described in Neal Stephenson‘s fiction that travel in swarms and can be used both for information gathering and for more nefarious purposes — for example, as viruses to infect people. In Stephenson’s world, the distinction between living viruses and these tiny robots starts to blur. Today’s nanoprobes are being used to investigate the surface of cells and even their interiors in the human nervous system. They are also being used for non-invasive imaging of tumor growth as described in new study published in Experimental Biology and Medicine and reported in Science Centric. Researchers at the University of Texas have incorporated nanotechnology, material science, and MRI technology, to create a nanosized probe capable of non-invasively visualizing and quantifying blood vessel growth.
The Foresight Institute’s Open Source Sensing initiative proposes sensor and data handling standards that preserve both the right to privacy and the right (or perceived need) to sense. Foresight Institute co-founder and President Christine Peterson quotes Neils Bohr, “The best weapon of a dictatorship is secrecy, but the best weapon of a democracy should be the weapon of openness.”
It’s not hard to imagine swarms of bird-like robots along with nanoprobe “mites” that have advanced sensor technology with the ability to gather information about anything from the weather to your DNA — as the Foresight Institute web site points out, “a long and expensive battle is looming between those using sensors to collect data and those whose data is being collected.” Better detection of chemical and biological weapons such as Antrax, Sarin, and Ricin is in everyone’s interest, as are miniature biosensors to identify microbes or HIV. But, the use of cellular neural nanoprobes starts to raise ominous possibilities for information gathering — probing the inside the human brain.
The leap from MAV to mite for sensor placement is just around the corner. In fact, it’s likely already on the military agenda. Preserving openness in the Internet of things and a web of sensors may just become the key civil liberties issue of tomorrow.