Smart cars, smart phones, smart toys, smart appliances—you name it and somebody, somewhere, is adding sensors to it. But the push for smaller, cheaper sensors is also having a big payoff for research, especially environmental monitoring. As concern about global warming grows, the ability to measure what's actually happening to the planet helps us understand the interwoven systems that keep our climate systems stable.
An article from World Changing, "Marine Animals Used As Ocean Sensors," reports that researchers are tagging albatrosses, elephant seals, sharks, and other apex predators to gather data on migratory paths and ocean conditions. Visit the Tagging of Pacific Pelagics Web site and you can view the paths of the tagged animals. What better way to see what's happening in and around the ocean than to hitch a ride on one of its inhabitants? I'll grant you that instrumenting an albatross is a bit more exotic than the average data collection application, but it's such an elegant solution to the problem!
What's even more exciting is combining these data with those from the various satellite-based imagers to place the animals' travels in the context of sea surface temperatures, chlorophyll concentrations, sea surface height, currents, and sea floor topology. Our climate is inextricably linked with the ocean and its behavior and this combination approach gives us a much better idea of what's going on, backed by actual numbers.
The Big Picture
For the new year, the Jet Propulsion Lab created a slide show of images from 2005. You can view it here. Sure, these are pretty, pretty pictures but their beauty obscures their utility. They represent a huge amount of information about our planet and our universe, all obtained using sensor technology of various types. While the smart gadgets are fun and make my life just that little bit easier and more comfortable, I think that these sensor uses are a lot more compelling. Smart planet vs. smart car? No contest.