It is already possible, although it is not quite practical, to make a computer the size of a grain of rice. However, the construction of wireless devices of the size of dust particles capable of detecting their environment, calculation, communication, and self-feeding would be a monumental leap. In August 2018, Gartner Inc., a leading information technology research firm, re-launched smart dust as part of its Hype Cycle for emerging technologies. Much of the recent surge is a matter of timing. Developers are excited about advances in sensors, the Internet of Things, fifth generation wireless networks, and edge computing. Connections become so fast and networks are so powerful, building Nano scale computers finally makes sense.
The possible applications are endless with the advances in the technology. Mill floors are loaded with machines that are smart enough to understand when maintenance is needed. Tiny sensors will monitor farms and prevent crop damage. And cities will be able to follow the traffic of vehicles and people. Dedicated computing devices can connect to powerful networks and bring new advances in business, medicine, and surveillance. Given the possibilities, it is not surprising that military interests have been at the forefront of the early development of intelligent dust. The Rand Corporation and the Defense Advanced Research Project began work on micro-electromechanical systems in 1992. Five years later, DARPA funded the research of Kris Pister, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Berkeley. At the time, Pister imagined a world in which ubiquitous sensors could measure anything that could be calculated. Immediately, he thought of environmental applications. Identifying weather conditions would be a deadly application. His military benefactors were thinking of hounding people. Ironically, a decade later, people would start voluntarily carrying devices, along with private-sector software, that would do the same thing. However, smart dust is not accompanied by any privacy policies. In 2016, researchers at UC Berkeley published an article in which micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) far exceeded the capabilities of smartphones, wearable devices, Facebook and Google. Neuronal dust will eventually place tiny sensors inside the human skull to track brain activity. As exaggerated as it may seem, researchers think they see a path over most obstacles. They have a roadmap to develop Nano scale devices. They also believe that they can overcome the challenges of communication and computing.
Right now, the problem is power. Getting all these sensors detected – and staying connected to the network – seems to defy the laws of physics. The Review points out that a small number of startups are working on silicon that consumes a tiny amount of energy. One company, PsiKick, a battery manufacturer for the Internet of Things applications, claims that its chip consumes 1 million times less energy than an iPhone. Other companies have tried to harness the energy of vibrations, light, magnetism, temperature and chemical reactions. Their success has varied. RFID tags, for example, draw their energy from a base station. When the reader accesses the tag, it comes alive with pockets of useful information. Passive Wi-Fi makes use of backscatter communication technology to transmit power to existing Wi-Fi chipsets. University of Washington engineers have been able to power standard smartphones from 10 meters. Analog devices are one of the best ways for investors to play on the trend of ultra-low consumption. In the shorter term, its SmartMesh IP creates a standards-based ecosystem around energy-efficient wireless networks. This standard is said to be eight times more energy efficient than others. Modern networks are evolving, sustainable and also capable of rectifying themselves. SmartMesh networks have an economic interest for companies that push computers to the edge of their networks. In the longer term, Analog continues to work for intelligent dust. In2011, Dust Networks, founded by Kris Pister, was acquired by Linear Technology. Today, the IP remains under the name DustCloud, a subsidiary of Analog Devices.