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Tiny sensors track 'lost' objects
Australian scientists are working on a new type of sensor that can locate wandering objects - including that missing coffee mug.

Known as FLECK Nano, the sensors are small enough to be attached to a wide range of objects and, according to CSIRO research engineer Phil Valencia, can also be programmed to measure more than location.

"We've developed interfaces for various sensors such as humidity and temperature, accelerometers for sort of tracking motion and things like that as well as other little things for controlling power outlets and stuff like that," says Valencia.

"So it really just depends on what the object is that you're interested in and then you want to pick sensors that make sense for that particular object"

Valencia says the technology could be used to solve the mystery of migrating coffee mugs.

"I have a coffee mug for example which is sensored with a temperature sensor and an accelerometer to track the coffee mug where it's going through the office," he says. "So if I leave it anywhere I can find where it is and I can also find out the temperature of my coffee."

There may be applications beyond the office as well.
Tracking cheese

Valencia says the sensors could be used to help consumers ensure they don't eat an out-of-date block of cheddar for example, and is more reliable than the old 'sniff test'.

"It can be tracked and say where the cheese is, what temperature variation through its life did it experience," says Valencia, "That information can be sent back to the database and can also be analysed by people."

"When the cheese finally makes it to your fridge for example, the fridge could download that data directly from the cheese and sort of say 'hey, your cheese has gone through this variation so I would recommend that you eat it by the end of the week' or something like that. "

Researchers are still working out how to power the devices more efficiently. It would be impractical to constantly change the batteries if the tiny sensors were attached to hundreds of objects.

They're also working on ways to make the devices smaller than their current size which is about as large as a coin cell battery.
Privacy issues

Valencia concedes the small size might create privacy issues because if a sensor can be attached to stapler or a block of cheese then presumably it could used to keep track of a person.

But he says it's an issue that his team is taking seriously.

"Privacy is something that comes up with any sort of information, any information that tells you about anything, like whether it's where a stapler is or whether it tells you where a person is and how often they've been in their office," says Valencia.

"You know all that information can be used for sort of good things and also potentially bad things.

"But it's definitely something that we do consider. So there are methods for sort of anonymising certain pieces of data. For example, we can actually say don't store the positions of people."

Valencia says the research group hope to have the sensors out of the lab in the next two to three years.

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