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Smart Forest
Smart Forest

A few years ago, in a patch of California forest, researchers were “linking up more than 100 tiny sensors, robots, cameras and computers,” giving them “an unusually detailed portrait of this lush world, home to more than 30 rare and endangered species.”

Wireless motes, cameras and other sensors track the nesting habits of birds, the life cycles of moss and the carbon dioxide uptake of various soils. Robots move along wires strung from tree to tree, lowering sensors to take temperature, humidity and light-level readings at different levels.

So when a tree falls in the forest, they will hear it. Always. In real-time. And over the internet.

If you allow us to indulge ourselves for a moment, we're reminded of that scene in Red Planet (2000) in which Val Kilmer, stranded in the extraterrestrial wilderness of Mars but incredibly near the Mars rover Sojourner, used parts of the robot to construct a makeshift radio to communicate with a fellow astronaut still in orbit. A rescue plan is hatched, after which he has some run-ins with a rogue robot, stumbles into a swarm of oxygen-excreting native Martian insects, and saves the Earth because of that discovery.

Stranded in the terrestrial wilderness of the forest but again incredibly near a smart patch, Val Kilmer will again cobble together a makeshift radio but this time out of dormant tiny robots to communicate with a fellow hiker still at the trailhead. A rescue team is dispatched, after which he has some run-ins with a rogue treebot belaying and gliding from treetop to treetop, stumbles into a swarm of climate change data saved by but not downloaded from the network, and saves the Earth because of that discovery.

Returning to the first smart forest, when it was being implanted with sensing devices, “the field [was] young.” There was “an emerging world of very large networks that combine motes and portable gear with larger technologies to improve the depth, duration and range of monitoring.”

Among these very large networks was the $200-million EarthScope, planned to comprise of “3,000 stations that are to track faint tremors, measure crustal deformation and make three-dimensional maps of the earth's interior from crust to core. Some 2,000 more instruments are to be mobile - wireless and sun- or wind-powered - and 400 devices are to move east in a wave from California across the nation over the course of a decade.”

Another one is the $500-million National Ecological Observatory Network, or NEON, which then envisioned to include “15 circular areas 250 miles in diameter, each including urban, suburban, agricultural, managed and wild lands.”

Each observatory would have radar for tracking birds and weather as well as many layers of motes and robots and sensors, including some on cranes in forest canopies. If NEON gets a green light, construction is expected to start in 2007 and last five years.

One goal is to track invasive species, which cause more than $100 billion in agricultural losses each year. Another is to forecast changes in the biosphere that may accompany climate shifts so planners and government officials can make better choices about land use and restoration.

One wonders to what extent these networks were implemented over the years. How much of the $1 billion the National Science Foundation saw itself spending on these ecological projects did it actually dole out? Are there now, together with Charlie Sheen's global-spanning blanket of missives, layers upon layers of eco-data giving us a totalizing view of the entire planet?

Perhaps there's a list waiting to be made.


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