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Why New Daedalus?

Daedalus was the mythical great architect and artificer of the classical world. Today, embedded intelligence is enabling the most profound changes in the way we create and use buildings since his day.

Building Intelligence meets the Intelligent Building. The Intelligent Building negotiates with the Intelligent Grid. How will this transform how we interact with the physical world?

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Cyborg Beetles, Cyber-security, Smart Buildings, and the Smart Grid

Cyber beetles provide an interesting glimpse into agent based interactions. Smart grids and smart buildings are integrated today using deep, integration, and complete control of the underlying processes. As more and more nodes are added to any system, the overhead of maintaining all interactions at a central point becomes more significant. In grid-scale systems, system designers have managed complexity by limiting diversity; a system may be managing ten thousand substations, but at least they are identical systems. A current DARPA project dramatically demonstrates a better approach.

At a recent IEEE meeting in Italy, Michel Maharbiz of the University of California demonstrated his Cyborg Beetle. His team has implanted electrodes in a giant flower beetle and mounted a wireless receiver on its back. The team is able to cause the beetle to take off, to hover, to turn left and right, and to land. Someday, a system like this may be used for surveillance or to guide rescue operations.

The beauty of the system is its simplicity. It uses an off-the-shelf wireless receiver. The signals sent to the beetle are very simple. The beetle performs all complex acts without requiring direct control. The biggest challenge is placing the electrodes. The interface consists of six electrodes implanted in the basal nodes of the flight muscles and in its optic lobes.

The beetle is arrives able to maintain its equilibrium. It comes able to synchronize its muscles to maintain efficient flight. The system uses the minimum signals needed to make the beetle do so. Like scratching a dog on the side to get that hind leg going, the cyborg beetle gets an itch to fly and takes off. Because the messages are so insignificant, this approach saves battery life as well programming complexity.

The beetle has evolved for efficient flight and balance. A core principle of ecology is that the most intense competition is always intra-niche competition. Beetles compete with other beetles, and compete most intensely with beetles that seek the same food, and live in the same place. This is a good model for the smart grid and for smart building interactions.

We want the most rapid development we can get for each of the nodes of the smart grid, and for each of the technologies of smart energy. To get this rapid development, we must put these technologies in direct intra-niche competition, and not allow competition to be lessened by large product lines or entrenched systems.

We can do this by limiting the control and integration we use between each node on the grid. We must eschew deep integration and direct control of the processes of each substation. Just as the Cyborg Beetle operators leave flying to the evolved processes, we should leave substation operation to the substation, and home device operation to the home devices. We want a rich, diverse ecosystem of energy strategies, an ecosystem with intense competition.

Control of the Beetle is limited to deciding whether to hover or to land, to turn left or to turn right. The beetle knows how to fly, and how to land. A beetle that will not fly can be replaced. That’s how it should be in the smart grid and in the smart building and home. Let the node take care of security. Let the node take care of operations.

You can watch the flight of the Beetle at MIT Technology Review Multimedia (

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Reader Comments (1)

Cool leap, from beetles to the smart grid. On this note, II just heard a researcher speak at NREL, where I work, advocating for small- to medium-size ESCOs to be the basic unit of competition in smart grid management. Firm competition at the cyber-physical interface will be critical. Especially in regard to controlling the charging of PHEVs, which, if done all at once would crash the grid, the system will require intermediary firms to aggregate local submeshes of PHEVs and to control their charging. Exactly which algorithms to use, and how to effectively turn this charge control into financially lucrative "regulation service" power for the wholesale markets, is something that must evolve through robust competition.

So from motes to beetles to residential mesh networks to block associations to cities -- if we frame the policies and incentives correctly, we can expect to see some cool competition between system integrators in this space.

May 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMackay

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