To the road warrior, the PDA is an essential tether to the enterprise -- one on which any given sales call may ultimately depend. But to the thousands of endangered plant species across the globe, an enterprise-ready handheld might just prove the difference between existence and extinction.
[ See the full list of Weird tech uses ]
SenseIT, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) grant program undertaken by the Advanced Network Computing Laboratory in conjunction with the botany and computer science departments at the University of Hawaii, was launched to create a self-organizing, self-healing microsensor network that could be used to monitor endangered plant species in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.
Because the unwritten rule of technical research gathering in national parks is, "If you can see it, it can't be there," the group -- which, full disclosure, I was a part of -- had to think outside the box and opted to hide its microsensors in fake rocks and tree branches we called PODS.
The microsensors themselves were constructed from off-the-shelf Compaq iPaq PDAs, loaded with the Familiar Linux distribution. The group implemented a custom gradient-routing variation of the 802.11b ad-hoc wireless protocol to equip the networked microsensors with self-healing and self-organizing functionality. Tucked safely in their PODS, these PDA-based microsensors were then placed along the Chain of Craters Road within Volcanoes National Park, from the rain forest to the desert of the west rift zone.
Waking up once an hour, the iPaq PODS snapped high-resolution digital images of targeted endangered plants. The microsensors bundled this image with various environmental measurements -- wind speed, temperature, and so on -- and beamed it all to a Postgres database over an encrypted link.
The modularity of the approach -- tapping your everyday PDA -- was essential in capturing a wide array of vital information about the status of plants whose populations are waning. Essential as well were the fake rocks used to house the microsensors. So convincing was the camouflage that, at one point during the research gathering exercise, photographs of a film crew resting on the crater rim were taken by the "rocks" around them without arousing their suspicion.
Next time you're in Volcanoes, beware, you never know when a PDA might just be watching.
[Return to Weird tech index to see all 11 entries]