Glasgow, SCOTLAND Researchers here have gained initial funding to develop a highly distributed asynchronous network of particle-size nodes, each with sensing, communications and processing capability, that could be scattered across an area or onto an object to create a distributed network with in situ computation capabilities. Researchers see the program as a jumping-off point for work on a range of leading-edge technologies by the Scottish electronics industry.
The SpeckNet Consortium of five universities received $2.1 million on Oct. 1 from the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council to explore "a very, very extreme form of network with nodes measuring roughly a millimeter cubed," said professor Iain Thayne of the Nanoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Glasgow's department of electronics and electrical engineering. The tiny self-powered nodes, or "specks," could "be sprayed into a car, or onto clothes, for example, and you'd have diagnostics [capability]. If you scatter them around, you can have them do all kinds of things," Thayne said.
Speck nodes might be purchased at the corner shop by weight, said D.K. Arvind, director of the Institute for Computing Systems Architecture at the School of Informatics, University of Edinburgh, and director of the SpeckNet Consortium. Two projects to demonstrate "speckled computing" are in the works, Arvind said.
In one, thousands of specks will be sprayed onto the chest of a patient with coronary heart disease-a leading killer in the United Kingdom-to monitor his or her condition remotely. In the second experiment, the specks will be placed on the pieces of a child's puzzle, for example, or on pieces of equipment to be assembled.
"Once it's sprayed or 'speckled,' an object has a computational aura," Arvind said. "You can do long-distance learning by providing feedback and commentary. There are lots of neat and different applications we are looking at. The specks are small enough and powerful enough to do things that you could not do before. They will be the technology of ubiquitous network computing."
Envisioned as a 12- to 15-year project, the development of the so-called speckled-computing network will give rise to other projects to support the network, such as energy-conscious communications protocols, renewable energy sources and integrated radio/photonic communications interfaces for individual specks, which will communicate at about 10 kbits/second at a distance of a few centimeters by laser, when possible, or otherwise by radio.
"The amount of technology that needs to be developed is huge, in the areas of signal processing, operating systems, sensing technology, battery technology," Thayne said. "There are high-tech challenges that have to be resolved, and this is one way of getting real neat solutions." Spin-offs will be created along the way "to look at some of these very extreme technology developments in the shorter term," he said.
A key aspect of the project will determine how to deliver computing performance in a resource-constrained environment. "If we can do computation in the extreme, that will have implications for systems that are much larger, and that can cross over into computing networks and be applied elsewhere," Arvind said. The decentralized peer-to-peer network will be unlike anything developed so far, he said. "The database will be highly distributed. We need to come up with a new way to access the information, and also a new way to replicate in case some specks go down."
The consortium, currently comprised of the University of Glasgow, the University of Edinburgh, Napier University, the University of St. Andrews and the University of Strathclyde, will be searching for additional members and funding. The $2.1 million is "just a stake in the ground," Thayne said. "We'll be seeking funding till the cows come home. We've got U.K. funding, and we're seeking collaborators in the U.S. We're very keen to explore collaboration opportunities."
SpeckNet is on the "short list" of 20 forward-looking proposals out of 137 submitted that the Scottish government is considering for additional funding. "It's a highly competitive program, and 10 will be funded," Arvind said, to the tune of $4.6 million. The government will select the winners in December.
The consortium is to have a working demonstration of the speckled-computing network with 1-mm3 specks in four years. The first individual nodes, to be produced in the second year, will include an ultrawideband antenna, RF circuits, a solar cell, a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser, a mixed-signal sensor and a micronet processor.
"This is a real step change, to have a highly distributed network of very small nodes," Thayne said. "It's about the power you get from having a computer as part of the environment. We're going to take it as far as it can be extrapolated."
The consortium's work is similar to the ad hoc sensor network being pursued by Intel Research Labs at Berkeley, Calif., and the "smart dust" networks pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). Intel demonstrated an 800-node sensor network at the Intel Developer Forum in August 2001. Each node measured about 1 inch square and included a 4-MHz controller, 16 kbytes of flash instruction memory, 512 kbytes of SRAM, an A/D converter, peripheral interfaces and 256 kbits of E2PROM as secondary storage. Intel chief technology officer Patrick Gelsinger said at the demo that the nodes would pave the way for "embedding computing capability in places it hasn't been before." Intel said it plans to shrink the nodes to a cubic millimeter or smaller.
Intel Capital has taken an investment in smart-sensor vendor Crossbow Technology Inc. (San Jose, Calif.) and the University of California at Berkeley has contracted for Crossbow to build prototypes of smart-dust sensors, called motes, for the self-configuring networks. Darpa plans to scatter the sensor nodes across a battlefield, for example, to collect data on enemy movements. Collected data is passed to a central location.
SpeckNet's Arvind said the speckled-computing network will go further because it has more computation capability and is a peer-to-peer network with programmable nodes. "Smart dust is essentially a sensor network. With programmable specks, you can perform computation in situ," he said. "Maybe you can download a program to it."
The key is programmability. "You want to program and alter the functionality of the speck," Arvind said. "You can only do that if you have programmability [built in]."
The SpeckNet Consortium is expected to bootstrap the electronics industry in Scotland, which invests considerable sums to encourage the formation of startups and to attract high-tech employers and create jobs. The unemployment rate in Scotland was 4.1 percent in July, according to the country's Office for National Statistics. "There are only 5 million people in Scotland, but we have areas of expertise that when you bring them together, you have critical mass," said Thayne of the University of Glasgow.
"When I graduated from university in 1994, there were only six or seven [electronics] companies in Scotland. Now there are 170 doing design electronics," said Simon Wallace, senior executive of microelectronics, optoelectronics and system design for Scottish Development International, which tries to lure companies to the so-called Silicon Glen.
Universities in Scotland graduate 5,000 students a year in the engineering, software and technology disciplines, according to government figures. "There is a wide body of expertise," said Julian Hayes, vice president of marketing for Wolfson Microelectronics (Edinburgh). "We're just not that good in applying it sometimes."
The SpeckNet Consortium aims to change that. "We are not starting from scratch," Arvind said. "We have research at the universities on which we can build. This is a highly multidisciplinary effort; it's a matter of finding the right people within Scotland with the expertise. And we need expertise from a number of areas to make this happen. This will bring us together in an exciting way."