By Saviour Nickolas Derel J

Imagine a world where wireless devices are as small as a grain of salt. These miniaturised devices have sensors, cameras and communication mechanisms to transmit the data they collect back to a base in order to process. Today, you no longer need to imagine it: microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), often called motes, are real and they very well could be coming to a neighbourhood near you. Whether this fact excites or strikes fear in you it’s good to know what it’s all about.

What can smart dust do?  

Outfitted with miniature sensors, MEMS can detect everything from light to vibrations to temperature. It is a tiny dust-size device with extraordinary capabilities. With an incredible amount of power packed into its small size, MEMS combine sensing an autonomous power supply, computing and wireless communication in a space that is typically only a few millimetres in volume. Being such a small size, these devices can stay suspended in an environment just like a particle of dust and it is very hard to detect.

Smart Dust is useful in monitoring real world phenomenon without disturbing the original process;

  • Collect data including acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound and more from sensors
  • Process the data with what amounts to an onboard computer system
  • Store the data in memory
  • Wirelessly communicate the data to the cloud, a base or other MEMs

Working principle of Smart Dust

Smart Dust motes are run by microcontrollers. These microcontrollers consist of tiny sensors for recording various types of data. Timers are used to run these sensors. These sensors do the job of collecting the data. The data obtained are stored in its memory for further interpretations. It can also be sent to the base controlling stations.

Corner Cube Retroreflector (CCR) has three mutually orthogonal planar mirrors. Any incident light within a solid angle is reflected in the direction of the incident light. By moving one of the mirrors, the CCR can be used to modulate the incident ray of light at kilohertz rates. The microfabricated CCR includes an electrostatic actuator that can deflect one of the mirrors at kilohertz rate. Hence the external light source can be transmitted back in the form of the modulated signal at kilobits per second. It can transmit to the bus only when the CCR body diagonal happens to point directly towards the bits, within a few tens of degrees.

Although a passive transmitter can be made more omnidirectional by employing several CCRs oriented in different directions, at the expense of increased dust mote size.

Practical applications of smart dust

The potential of smart dust to collect information about any environment in incredible detail could impact plenty of things in a variety of industries from safety to compliance to productivity. It’s like multiplying the internet of things technology millions or billions of times over. Here are just some of the ways it might be used:

  • Monitor crops in an unprecedented scale to determine watering, fertilisation and pest-control needs.
  • Monitor equipment to facilitate more timely maintenance.
  • Identify weaknesses and corrosion prior to a system failure.
  • Enable wireless monitoring of people and products for security purposes.
  • Measuring anything that can be measured nearly anywhere.
  • Enhance inventory control with MEMS to track products from manufacturing facility shelves to boxes to palettes to shipping vessels to trucks to retail shelves.
  • Possible applications for the healthcare industry are immense from diagnostic procedures without surgery to monitoring devices that help people with disabilities interact with tools that help them live independently.
  • Researchers at UC Berkeley published a paper about the potential for neural dust, an implantable system to be sprinkled on the human brain, to provide feedback about brain functionality.

 Disadvantages of smart dust

There are still plenty of concerns with wide-scale adoption of smart dust that need to be sorted out. Here are a few disadvantages of smart dust:

  • Privacy concerns – Many that have reservations about the real-world implications of smart dust are concerned about privacy issues. Since smart dust devices are miniature sensors, they can record anything that they are programmed to record. Since they are so small, they are difficult to detect. Your imagination can run wild regarding the negative privacy implications when smart dust falls into the wrong hands.
  • Control – Once billions of smart dust devices are deployed over an area it would be difficult to retrieve or capture them if necessary. Given how small they are, it would be challenging to detect them if you weren’t made aware of their presence. The volume of smart dust that could be engaged by a rogue individual, company or government to do harm would make it challenging for the authorities to control if necessary.
  • Cost – As with any new technology, the cost to implement a smart dust system that includes the satellites and other elements required for full implementation is high. Until costs come down, it will be technology out of reach for many.

What should you do to prepare?

According to researchers, the smart dust hypothesis of monitoring every element of our earth will be highly beneficial to humankind. Certain organizations have already introduced sensors on different parking areas and highroads in San Francisco. The sensors are integrated with magnetometers to assess and sense if any big metal object is sitting on a specific spot, identifying a car.

The entities who have led the development of smart dust technology since 1992 and large corporations such as General Electric, Cargill, IBM, Cisco Systems and more who invested in research for smart dust and viable applications believe this technology will be disruptive to economies and our world.

At this moment many of the applications for smart dust are still in the concept stage. In fact, Gartner listed smart dust technology for the first time in its Gartner Hype Cycle in 2016. While the technology has forward momentum, there’s still quite a bit to resolve before you will see it impacting your organisation. However, it’s important to pay attention to its trajectory of growth, because it’s no longer the fodder of science fiction. We might not know when it will progress to the point of wide-scale adoption, but we certainly know it’s a question of when rather than if.