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When we hear the word “dust”, the first thing that comes to our mind is a powdery substance with zero value. Smart dust is a tiny device with extensive applications in science and technology. Designing a product of tiny or compact size with various intrinsic applications is a recent trend in technology, especially in electronics. This article discusses the technological advancements and applications of smart dust.
Smart dust is a few millimeter-sized device that can operate as an individual component using a very small power supply. It consists of multiple small wireless microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) of 20 micrometers-1 millimeters in size. MEMS are also known as motes which are equipped with sensors, cameras, and other communication mechanisms. These are ultimately connected to a computer network wirelessly to process the data procured through RFID (radio-frequency identification) technology. These minuscule devices are constructed using conventional silicon microfabrication techniques and can remain suspended in an environment similar to dust.
Functions of Smart Dust
Motes collect various data that include light, vibrations, temperature, pressure, acceleration, humidity, sound, and stress. The data is transferred from one mote to another mote until it reaches the transmission node. The main functions of motes include:
- Wirelessly processing the data with a computer system
- Storing the data (memory).
- Wirelessly communicating the data to the cloud, a base, or other MEMS
Applications of Smart Dust
Smart dust devices work without any human intervention as they are preprogrammed. Owing to their small size and weight, they can be easily positioned in narrow and difficult areas. They can collect detailed information in multiple circumstances, which have proved highly beneficial in various research and industries. A few examples are as follows:
- Agriculture: Constant monitoring of a crop’s nutritional requirements, watering, fertilization, and pest control. This valuable information can help to increase the quantity and quality of the crop. It can also record soil conditions such as pH, fertility, microbial infestations, i.e., information vital for the plant's growth.
- Industries: Continuous screening of essential equipment, prompting action regarding its maintenance. Assessing the exact condition of machines, their weakness, and corrosion can prevent complete system failure.
- Security: Wireless monitoring of suspicious people
- Controlling inventory: Tracking products from their manufacturing factories to retail shelves via transport facility (ship vessels to trucks) would ensure tight inventory control.
- Medical diagnostics: Researchers at UC Berkeley have highlighted how brain functionalities can be studied with implanted neutral dust.
- Transport sector: Smart dust transports perishable goods as these materials require constant monitoring. While transporting perishable goods, certain parameters such as temperature, humidity, and aeration have to be monitored continuously. Similarly, smart dust helps to monitor animals' health and control the necessary conditions such as temperature, air, and humidity for safe transport.
- Military applications: It helps in accessing activities in remote or inaccessible areas. It can also determine the presence of toxic gases or harmful substances and help take necessary actions.
- Travel safety: Smart dust technology can play a vital role in ensuring safe traveling. Detection of crucial factors such as pavement maintenance, or monitoring moisture condition and temperature of the road during harsh environmental conditions could help travelers.
Despite having many unique advantages, people are skeptical about the application of smart dust due to privacy issues. As already mentioned, smart dust devices are very small, i.e., invisible to our naked eye and, therefore, are extremely difficult to detect. Since these devices are preprogrammed, they begin to record sensitive data. Therefore, if smart dust falls into the wrong hands, severe data infringement issues could occur. Because of their small size, it is also challenging to detect and retrieve smart dust devices after they are deployed over an area.
Commercialization of Smart Dust Technology
Large corporations such as Cargill, General Electric, Cisco Systems, and IBM have invested substantially in smart dust research. Many of the applications of smart dust are still in the concept stage. Some other companies associated with smart dust technology are discussed below.
Beta Batt: This company is based in Houston, US, and is involved in the development of efficient, long-lasting, and consistent power sources. Among many of their accomplishments, they have developed and patented a three-dimensional energy conversion system named DECTM Cell. This system has been applied to Mesh Networks, Mechanical Systems, Smart Dust, and several other micro/nanoarchitecture.
Defendec: This company provides an efficient, autonomous, and self-healing wireless sensor network that consumes ultra-low battery energy for its operation. The main product of Defendec is “Smartdec”, which is helping to secure the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union's external borders. It helps stop and control illegal trafficking, international smuggling, and other unlawful activities on the border. Border guards use this technology.
CubeWorks: This company was founded in 2013 and is involved in developing the world's smallest wireless sensors, real-world smart dust.
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References and Further Readings
Bernard Marr. (2018) Smart Dust Is Coming. Are You Ready? [Online] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2018/09/16/smart-dust-is-coming-are-you-ready/#5be7cb465e41 (Accessed on 5 October 2020).
Taylor, K. 5 Applications of Smart Dust. [Online] HiTechNectar. Available at: https://www.hitechnectar.com/blogs/smart-dust-applications/ (Accessed on 5 October 2020).
Nadim A., et al. (2006) An application of smart dust for pavement condition monitoring. Smart Structures and Materials 2006: Sensors and Smart Structures Technologies for Civil, Mechanical, and Aerospace Systems. Society of Photo-Optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) Conference Series. 6174, 976-987. https://ui.adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2006SPIE.6174..976F/abstract
Defendec [Online] Available at: www.defendec.com (Accessed on 5 October 2020).
CubeWorks. [Online] Available at: https://www.cubeworks.io/ (Accessed on 5 October 2020).
BetaBatt [Online] Available at: http://www.betabatt.com/ (Accessed on 5 October 2020).