Today I heard about a neat project that's going on at the Mechanical Engineering Department at Berkeley: FIRE, Fire Information & Rescue Equipment
. Apparently Berkeley engineers have been working on some kind of wireless sensor networking technology
for a while--creating potentially tiny packages of physical sensors (for things like temperature, smoke, etc.), small processing computers, and transmitters. It's not clear to me how small these nodes are now, but apparently they're at least as small as a hand. The engineers seem to be envisioning them shrinking to possibly being smaller than pennies. As they shrank, they'd also get more energy efficient and cost efficient.
The idea behind FIRE is to take the kind of vital information one could gather about a building with a network of such sensors, and during an emergency process it, analyze it, and distribute it. During a fire, say, the system will quickly send the resulting conclusions to firefighters rushing in to rescue the inhabitants, using a small visual display mounted on the inside of their helmets. Communications issues are an enduring problem for first responders, even after 9/11
. FIRE seems particularly interesting to me because it is attacking three very different parts of the problem: the physical detection and gathering of information, the communication of that information to firefighters, and an electronic implementation
of the NFPA Incident Command Systems to coordinate the responders. All three aspects seem to be being built in parallel, side by side. Just as the partial aim of FIRE is to use information technology to better coordinate the rather urgent collaboration of firefighters, I wonder to what extent engineers can use information technology to coordinate their own collaborations. Designing important systems holistically from the beginning seems like a possibly very useful way to approach engineering.