An aeroplane that can diagnose and repair a faulty component while it is still in the air, or a spacecraft that can sense a cracked tile and repair itself without human intervention may be the kind of technology that comes out of a new area of CSIRO research.
Smart spaces are intelligent systems with automatic flexibility to deal with unforeseen events. They will self-configure, self-repair, and adapt to changing conditions or new requirements, so they can function effectively with minimal human intervention.
"Smart spaces will supersede today's conventional massively engineered systems, where every increase in complexity presents fresh opportunities for failure that may be avoided with this new approach," says Dr Geoff James, CSIRO's Smart Spaces Project Leader.
"The need for a new approach was tragically highlighted by the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia in February, thought to be caused by the failure of a tile that was damaged by an unexpected impact.
"This event demonstrates that even the most meticulous engineering practices and dedicated human endeavour cannot guarantee a flawless result. The new way of engineering complex systems accepts that human errors and unexpected events are inevitable, and builds in the flexibility to detect anomalies well before they lead to failure, creating truly smart spaces that can roll with the punches," says Dr James.
Smart spaces will control aircraft and spacecraft, manage factories and their processes, monitor livestock, crops, water, and soil, and integrate healthcare knowledge and response across a community.
They will change radically the way people interact with their environment by allowing complex information to be gathered, shared, and used for making decisions.
"We are using bottom-up design to make smart spaces achieve their goals," says Dr James. "This means building the parts of a smart space so they will cooperate to achieve what we want.
"Just as ants build intricate nests and forage for food without any single ant having a plan or a map, future smart spaces will perform their tasks through the cooperation of many autonomous parts distributed wherever they are needed. This is a great design for flexible smart spaces."
A smart space is able to self-organise or reorganise into a new functioning whole. A consequence is that the smart space takes on a life of its own. Given freedom to follow its own strategies, it will find solutions that human engineers may not have thought of.
CSIRO has drawn together a dynamic and diverse team of scientists and engineers to tackle the challenge of designing the first working smart spaces. The Smart Spaces project is already attracting interest and collaboration from potential future applications for smart space technology, including environmental/rural industries, aerospace and health and community infrastructure.
Cross-fertilization between the practical and theoretical aspects of the project is already paying big dividends.
"CSIRO Smart Spaces has a focus on building real working systems, and using them to revolutionise industry practices," says Dr James. "Our discoveries in smart spaces research will be transferred directly to the prototype industry systems, as and when the discoveries are ready for application."
Smart Spaces at CSIRO
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