Dormant Infrastructures Featured Signal of Change: SoC829 October 2015

This Signal of Change looks at some experimental technologies that could actualize the speculative concept of dormant technologies—technologies that exist in a state of hibernation until they become necessary. Conceivably, such technologies could combine to create entire dormant infrastructures that users can awaken on demand. A number of issues exist. Cost is a very obvious issue, but designing such technologies to be independent from wired connectivity and power provision could mitigate costs. Wireless and power-independent systems then bring up a completely new set of challenges. How can users awaken such systems and reconnect them to existing networks? How can developers reduce power requirements to a minimum? Can power sources that are similarly independent see use in conjunction with such technologies? Benefits of such dormant technologies and infrastructures could be substantial. Developers can distribute or install dormant technologies and then forget about them completely until the need to make use of them arises. Maintenance and energy supply would be unnecessary during the technologies' dormancy. Because of their independence, such technologies and infrastructures could find use in remote areas and conceivably see use surreptitiously without third parties' knowledge. Although such capabilities obviously come with many advantages, they also create many issues that require consideration. The technologies that this Signal of Change presents are at very nascent and even conceptual stages, and they do not address all the enabling technologies necessary to create completely dormant infrastructures. Nevertheless, the technologies sketch a convincing picture of what future developments in this field might look like.

Developers can distribute or install dormant technologies and then forget about them completely until the need to make use of them arises.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, Massachusetts) have developed simple sensors that can transmit measurements to smartphones. The sensors can identify chemicals such as gaseous ammonia and cyclohexanone. They can also see use to identify food spoilage. The sensors use modified near-field-communication (NFC) tags that receive power from the reading device—for example, an NFC-equipped smartphone. According to MIT chemistry professor Timothy Swager, "The beauty of these sensors is that they are really cheap. You put them up, they sit there, and then you come around and read them. There's no wiring involved. There's no power" ("Detecting gases wirelessly and cheaply," MIT News Office, 8 December 2014; online). Having sleeping sensors or access to on-demand measurements (depending on the aspect one wants to highlight) in environments such as warehouses, landfills, and industrial sites could enable new work-safety and environmental practices.

Similarly, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA; Arlington, Virginia)—an agency of the US Department of Defense (Arlington County, Virginia)—has inaugurated the new Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operations (N-ZERO) program, which aims to develop unattended sensors that require next to no power, operate for years, and benefit devices in the Internet of Things. "The program intends to develop underlying technologies to continuously and passively monitor the environment and activate an electronic circuit only upon detection of a specific signature, such as the presence of a particular vehicle type or radio communications protocol" ("N-ZERO Envisions 'Asleep-yet-Aware' Electronics that Could Revolutionize Remote Wireless Sensors," DARPA, 13 April 2015; online). The goal of the program clearly connects to military applications, but such technologies could benefit virtually every industry and enable completely new applications. Power consumption—more specifically, the need for power from batteries or wires—is a very limiting factor for many applications that practitioners of the Internet of Things envision.

Other systems might extract energy from their environments. For instance, Binghamton University (Vestal, New York) assistant professor Seokheun "Sean" Choi has developed a bacteria-powered paper battery. The battery uses microbial respiration to generate power, and a single drop of bacteria-containing liquid can power a paper-based biosensor. According to Dr. Choi, "Dirty water has a lot of organic matter.... Any type of organic material can be the source of bacteria for the bacterial metabolism" ("Binghamton engineer creates origami battery," Binghamton University, 10 June 2015; online). The amount of energy that the battery stores and releases is very small (microwatts), but many nanoscale sensors require only very small amounts of energy to function. Even more elegantly, some systems make use of the energy provided by the very phenomena they measure. Researchers at Columbia University (New York, New York) are working on a camera that powers itself with the light energy that comes from the scenery it is trying to capture. At present, the camera's resolution is low (30 by 40 pixels), but the technology could find beneficial uses in the future. The researchers "believe such a device can play a vital role in emerging fields such as wearable imaging, sensor networks, smart environments, and the Internet of things" ("Self-Powered Camera," Columbia University Computer Vision Laboratory, April 2015; online).

The functions of dormant systems have the potential to extend far beyond merely sensing. Researchers at MIT and Harvard University (Cambridge, Massachusetts) have developed an origami robot "that folds itself up and crawls away as soon as batteries are attached to it" ("Origami robot folds itself up, crawls away," MIT News Office, 7 August 2014; online). At this stage, the robot is proof of feasibility rather than a commercial application, but its capabilities are impressive. Clearly, the robot requires electricity to function. Conceivably, a user could disperse the robots and send them power wirelessly to activate them. The ability to position dormant, folded robots across environments and activate them remotely should raise concerns for security experts.

These technologies are experimental and far removed from any commercial applications. At this stage, the concept of dormant infrastructures is speculative at best. But some systems that can activate when the need for their functionalities arises could find use in very well-defined niche applications. The use of such systems could prove particularly meaningful for military and industrial applications in the Internet of Things.