Smart Dust: A futuristic version of IOT, but are we ready for it?

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By Anupam Mishra

Drringg!! Drringg!! Drringg!!……
“I hate this annoyingly accurate chronometer.” thought Alex, as he unwillingly woke up from his deep slumber. He peered out through his basement window as he put his old-fashioned glasses over his groggy eyes, looking for any hint of some scatter of early morning sunlight. It was pitch dark, with some stars still visible through the top frame of the window. The sound thus couldn’t have been from the alarm clock. A sudden realization made him jump out of bed & rush up to the far end of the basement. Facing the wall of 17 monitors he stood as he scanned across them to zero in on the one that had detected an anomaly. All the while trying to resist apprehensive thoughts of a drug-resistant pest attack on the crops. He sighed in relief as his eyesight hovered over the 12th monitor. It was just the low nitrogen content of the soil in the north-west sector of the farm that had triggered the alarm. Lunging into a nearby chair he couldn’t help but feel pleased with his real-time remote monitoring set-up that allowed him to keep a constant tab on even the minutest details of his granddad’s farm. Alex came from a family of farmers but himself wasn’t one. A talented programmer & tech enthusiast, he had had to leave his dream job a year ago as a Product Developer at a tech. firm to move to the countryside & take care of his granddad & his farmlands.

It’s probably a bit impudent to intrude in the middle of a good narrative. But the focus of our discussion here is going to be more inclined towards the technologies that have been hinted at in the excerpt above rather than Alex’s life choices. Particularly speaking, Smart Dust. 

‘Smart Dust’, the term, was coined in the 1990s by Kris Pister, a computing professor at the University of California, Berkeley. He had it defined as ‘a millimeter scale sensing & communicating platform’. Essentially speaking these are miniaturized devices often called MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical Systems) that are to ideally have sensing, communicating, & even computing capabilities. The value-proposition that this technology offers is fundamentally in terms of real-time sensing & communication of data pertaining to an environment with minimum interference to its subjects of observation. In the excerpt above, for instance, Alex is able to gain real-time information about his farm’s parameters such as the soil’s nitrogen saturation levels, moisture content etc. and thus if required can take corrective action immediately. The applications are of course not limited to the agriculture sector as we shall note in the next few paragraphs.
The crux of the concept that Smart dust is based on can be traced back to 1965, when Gordon Moore, founder of Intel, had observed in one of his published articles that the no. of components that could be fit on a chip will consistently double every 2 years. Although this was just a passing observation on his part, it soon came to be identified as ‘Moore’s Law’ & became a benchmark for miniaturization for the semiconductor industry. As decades passed by gadgets gradually kept getting smaller with improved computing capabilities, until eventually the concept of Smart Dust emerged out of a research project led by the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) & the Research and Development Corporation (RAND). It is noteworthy that Smart Dust, like many other technologies such as RADAR, GPS, Drones, & even the Internet, owes its origins to a research project undertaken for military applications, yet it is by no means limited exclusively to that domain.

When it comes to applications, it would bore well to classify them into two categories: Practical & Fantastical. It is important to note here that the division is not based on how practical or otherwise the applications in both of these categories are, but rather on the time horizon that may be relevant when it comes to their wide-scale execution.
Practical Applications:
These devices would be of immeasurable value to enable condition-based maintenance systems. This would, on one hand, ensure a decrease in the quantum of resources lost via time-based maintenance activities & on the other hand help effect interventions at the right time before critical equipment failure. Moreover owing to the minuscule size these can be employed for monitoring even the motor parts of equipment.
Real-time monitoring of the crop ecosystem to know the requirements & address them readily. For instance moisture content & nitrogen saturation levels of the soil or pest-control needs. This will result in better allocation of resources at the right time thus improving their effectiveness.
In the healthcare industry, these devices will prove to be of extreme value to carry out diagnostic procedures that are intrusive and usually require surgery. There are also studies being undertaken to establish their utility during serious surgical procedures where they can provide valuable real-time data relating to the vitals of the patient.
The minuscule size & the potentially low variable cost of these devices make them an apt suitor when it comes to deploying them in environments that may be inaccessible to wired &/or unwieldy sensing instruments. They can thus be invaluable for recording data for meteorological, geophysical, or even inter-planetary research, which in turn might pave way for the next steps of explorations.
Fantastical Applications:
The proponents of this technology have visions of deploying innumerable such sensors in the planet’s atmosphere thus creating a ginormous network of communicating devices that will be able to provide information about the state of any part of the planet on a real-time basis. It is needless to say that the implications of setting up an infrastructure of this magnitude would be paradigm-altering, to say the least.
Needless to say the aforementioned list of applications is hardly exclusive in nature. Smart Dust Technology has the potential to play an instrumental role in numerous other domains. Traffic Control Systems, Smart Cities etc. being a couple of other examples.

It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of imagination to zero in on the most imperative concern that shall arise if the ambitious applications of this technology amount to fruition. The deployment of electronic ‘dust’ might be construed as a huge privacy invasion into the lives of denizens. Thus it may behoove the researchers involved in the development of the technology as well as policymakers to be mindful of this aspect as well.
Initial Costs:
Granted that the variable costs associated with the MEMS will get optimized to a minimum over the years, yet the infrastructure, like satellites & other elements, that’ll be required to be put in place for these devices to be functional would be anything but cheap. Especially when considering deploying the devices ubiquitously.
Considering the miniscule size & the huge number of such devices that’ll need to be produced, scalability does seem to be an issue at first glance. But considering the impressive rate of development in domains such as 3D-Printing, there’s reasonable hope that a solution may emerge in times to come.

How long before you see the marvels of this technology affecting your routine?
Well, it is true that recent developments in the area have shown promise, nevertheless, it’d be a little too optimistic to expect wide-scale applications of Smart Dust in the immediate future. In fact, it has hardly been 3 years since Gartner listed it for the 1st time in its Gartner Hype Cycle framework. Thus it is safe to infer that the technology has just started to step out of the conceptual stages & has a substantial stretch to cover. That being said, we can, however, be certain that Smart Dust is certainly not just the subject of sci-fi novels anymore. Maybe a little gradually, but it will eventually be an integral part of our lives.

Anupam Mishra is a tech analyst at Vistas News

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