smartdust

Smart Dust: How Swarms Of Tiny Computers Could Change The World

Photo courtesy of Garret Charles via Flickr

In just four decades, computers have scaled down from room-sized behemoths to tiny, rice-sized specks. The tiniest of all computing devices is smart dust, currently just one cubic millimeter in size.

Is this sorcery, sci-fi, or an allergy waiting to happen? You may be wondering. Years ago, smart dust could have been considered fantasy-fodder alone, but today millimeter-scale sensors are a small reality with ironically huge implications for computing.

Smart dust: What is it?

Smart dust is a system of tiny, microelectromechanical systems (also known as MEMS). These devices can be controlled wirelessly to detect elements of the environment like light, temperature, vibrations, and chemicals.

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Smart dust in concept, though not in name, dates back to science fiction in the 1960s, but has been topic of scientific, academic, and military research since the 90s.

Smart dust has many potential applications, most of which classify it as the pinnacle of the Internet of Things (IoT). Since IoT entails sensing the world and relaying information to the cloud, computers have to be both non-intrusive and consume little power.

As Harvard researchers speculate,“It is certainly within the realm of possibility that future prototypes of Smart Dust could be small enough to remain suspended in air, buoyed by air currents, sensing and communicating for hours or days on end.”

The world’s smallest computers

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Though there have been various smart dust projects in recent decades, researchers at the University of Michigan have developed the smallest known known MEMS, called the Michigan Micro Motes (M3), which are half a centimeter each (150 could fit in one thimble).

The M3 has various capabilities, despite its size. These include:

  • Wireless communication
  • Computation power and data storage
  • Sensing modalities for pressure, temperature, and visuals
  • Solar cells that power battery with ambient light

Researchers use light signals to communicate with the devices, and tweezers to manipulate their hardware, which is stacked with interchangeable layers, as seen in the below image.

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The modules can be mixed, matched, and replaced to suit various purposes. A main focus right now is the devices’ use implanted into the human body, for example, to monitor a tumor’s reaction to cancer treatment.

The future of smart dust

The reality of smart dust right now may not sound as fun or threatening as the swarm of pixie gadgets you might have initially imagined, but as researchers work to make MEMS even smaller and smarter, applications are bound to get more advanced.

Neural dust that tracks human thought, surveillance dust that tracks citizen whereabouts, and space dust that tracks conditions on other planets are just several of the extraordinary ways in which smart dust could shape the future.

Though the technology is certainly shaping up, it’s thought that a smart dust breakthrough could be 10 years off. So be prepared for things to get dusty relatively soon, and resist the urge to sneeze.

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Jennifer Markert