The smaller the mote, the more powerful the network.
A boy wanders the city streets alone and dirty, trying to figure out how make ends meet to support his little sister, home alone in the apartment they share with their mother. Every night the boy comes home, hacking and coughing, his lungs full of electric dust mote sensors that aggressive corporations have filled the air with to monitor their enemies and the populous.
If this sounds like science fiction, well, it is. The scene is from the early chapters of The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, a 1995 novel by futurist Neal Stephenson that tells of a wondrous and frightening future where humans have learned to manipulate nanoparticles to do everything, from building structures to feeding the masses.
But here’s the thing: Stephenson may have been writing science fiction, but the technology of electrical sensors floating on the air is very much real. Or will be some day.
Stephenson has been writing about fantastical future uses of real technology for decades. His vision of the Internet espoused in novels like Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash was preternaturally prescient. Stephenson has parlayed his abilities as a grandmaster of explanation, research and vision to become the “chief futurist” at much-hyped and ultra secretive augmented reality startup Magic Leap.
So, what was Stephenson looking at when he published The Diamond Age in the mid 90s? It’s called Smart Dust and one day it may be monitoring everything in the world.
What Is Smart Dust?
At its most base level, Smart Dust is composed of microscopic sensors that can float in the air and take basic measurements and send them back to a computer.
For a more complex definition, Smart Dust is based on microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that are just a few millimeters wide that can perform measurements such as temperature, vibration, humidity, chemical components, magnetism and so forth. The sensors are ultra low power and controlled by a bare bones operating system like TinyOS and communicate in radio frequencies like 6LoWPAN and 802.15.4e.
“Given its wide range of potential applications and benefits, this technology will, we believe, have a transformative effect on all areas of business and on people’s lives in general,” wrote Gartner analyst Ganesh Ramamoorthy in the 2016 Gartner Hype Cycle Report for Emerging Technologies.
Research of Smart Dust started as studies by RAND and DARPA in the early 1990s (as Stephenson must have been well aware). A research proposal by scientists out of the University of California, Berkeley was presented to DARPA in 1997 and accepted for funding in 1998. One of those scientists, Kris Pister, founded Dust Networks in 2004, which was acquired by Linear Technology in 2011.
To date scientists have been able to make Smart Dust motes at the millimeter level. As improvements are made in miniaturization, the hope is to create sensors and communication capabilities that will take the motes down to the micrometer level.
A couple of companies and organizations are working on Smart Dust research right now. Dust Networks still exists within Linear Technology and builds sensor motes that can work as a mesh network of communicating sensors. It’s not exactly “dust” but it is a start in the arena of miniature sensors for industrial and agricultural systems. The University of Glasgow is working on a technology it calls “smart specks.” The University of California, Berkeley has taken its work on Smart Dust and helped created TinyOS, an operating system similar to Arduino but designed for extreme low-power consumption.
Gartner introduced Smart Dust to the Hype Cycle in 2013 and labeled it as an “embryonic” technology that is still “more than 10 years” away. Smart Dust has not moved from that designation on the Hype Cycle since.
Potential Use Cases Of Smart Dust
If you think about it, Smart Dust would be the pinnacle achievement of the Internet of Things. Every trend in making sensors, power sources and communication devices smaller, more reliable and more powerful would culminate in the creation of dust mesh networks that could be deployed anywhere and everywhere. The idea of a Bluetooth beacon would be laughably archaic.
A future may exist where the type of nano-warfare that Stephenson describes in The Diamond Age occurs, but that future is nowhere near being a reality.
Smart Dust will first find itself being deployed in industrial and agricultural sectors.
Over the past couple of years, the notion of one big “Internet of Things” has started to bifurcate. On one side you have the commercial IoT landscape—homes, cars, appliances, televisions—and on the other side you have the “Industrial” Internet of Things that covers the likes of manufacturing, transportation, infrastructure etc. Companies like General Electric, IBM and Hitachi are beginning to dominate the field.
It will be firmly in this later vision of IoT that Smart Dust makes its first appeal. The ability to monitor and control various environments such as agricultural fields, greenhouses, warehouses, manufacturing plants and transportation systems with continuous streams of accurate and real-time data will be truly transformational.
People have envisioned using Smart Dust to explore the terrain of whole new planets. Of monitoring neighborhoods or battlefields. Of deploying Smart Dust into the atmosphere to accurately calculate ozone fluctuations and predict the weather. Of monitoring the mysterious world that is the Earth’s deep oceans. The opportunity of Smart Dust is to provide knowledge—supreme knowledge—of just about everything that is happening in the world around us.
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