By Jessi Hempel
April 9, 2010

Hewlett-Packard, Cisco and others are planning a central nervous system for the earth. Be prepared for sensors everywhere.

Imagine you could know about an earthquake 10 seconds before you felt the ground shake—or figure out that a bridge was in danger of collapsing before it took commuters along with it. That’s the promise behind one of the newest products coming out of Hewlett-Packard’s (HPQ) labs. By installing a trillion tiny sensors to collect data about the world around us, HP is quite literally trying to build a central nervous system for the earth–a product they call the CeNSE network. This could be a big business: HP will first deploy CeNSE to help Shell (RDSA) drill for oil.

As computing costs fall and web services are increasingly sophisticated at turning information into insight, HP is one of many large enterprise companies including IBM (IBM) and Cisco (CSCO) working on similar computing systems that rely on sensors to connect every object in our lives to the Internet. IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign, which Fortune wrote about last April, is a prime example.

The ever-shrinking sensors are the backbone of this new network.  They employ micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), a technology originally used in the HP’s inkjet printers. The sensors incorporate accelerometers that are 1,000 times more sensitive than the ones used in, say, Nintendo’s Wii gaming system.

Here’s how it works: Thousands of these sensors, which HP hopes to shrink down to the size of a pin, will be peppered over the area to be monitored. Tiny radio transmitters, which wirelessly send out a constant and massive amount of data, are bundled with them. Specially programmed computers look for patterns and flag critical information about, say, activity along a fault line or unusual movements on the pillar of a bridge.

Public safety benefits sound promising, but cities won’t be likely to invest in this type of technology until the cost drops substantially. So it’s no surprise that HP’s first customer for the CeNSE network is one of the world’s largest corporations, Shell. The company will rely on HP to place sensors beneath the earth that will provide data to build geophysical maps.  These maps will be able to better identify oil.

This type of sensor technology will likely become ubiquitous over time. It remains to be seen just how long this will take, and whether HP’s CeNSE network will be one of the largest contenders.

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