Smart Dust

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Smart Dust

Smart dust, also known as “microelectromechanical systems” or MEMS, represent a new kind of atomic-level materials engineering.

Key Insight

These computers, no larger than a grain of dust, are so light they can stay suspended in midair.

Why It Matters

Smart dust, also known as “microelectromechanical systems” or MEMS, represent a new kind of atomic-level materials engineering.

Examples

If you watched the “Arkangel” episode of “Black Mirror” (season four), you’re already familiar with smart dust. For years, researchers have been hard at work on miniaturization, as they try to shrink computers as much as possible, down to the size of grains of sand or specks of dust. Each particle-computer consists of circuits and sensors capable of monitoring the environment, and even taking photographs. They can even harvest energy while suspended, using everything from passive WiFi and our body heat to power themselves. It sounds fantastical, but the use of MEMS is already widespread. They’re the accelerometer sensors for our airbag systems and are also found in biosensors. Scientists at the University of California-Berkeley developed what they call “neural dust,” which comprises microscopic computers that work alongside remote ultrasound to send and receive data about the brain. Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Stuttgart figured out how to print tiny 3D lenses—120 millionths of a meter in diameter, or about the size of a grain of sand.

What’s Next

In health and medicine, this technology will dramatically change our approach to imaging. Rather than relying on our current endoscopic technology, which is bulky and invasive, a patient could simply inhale smart dust. Beyond medicine, trillions of smart dust particles could be released in the wind to measure air quality or take photos. But we must also consider other hazards and use cases: Would you know if you’d inhaled rogue smart dust on a windy day? In the further-future, could this technology be used to track us surreptitiously?

The Impact

We should see more interesting developments in smart dust this year as the practical application of always-on sensors grows.

Watchlist

Ambiq Micro, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Jeeva Wireless, Matrix Industries, Northrop Grumman, PsiKick, Purdue University, Stanford University, University of California-Berkeley, University of Stuttgart, University of Washington, University of Southern California Robotics Research Lab.