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Posted: December 7, 2008
Smart dust future
(Nanowerk News) Imagine a cloud of sensors, each the size of a grain of sand, blown aloft by hurricane winds and relaying data on the storm to weather stations below. Or picture tiny robotic chips drifting through a human artery to locate, and eradicate, a hidden clot.
While the above advances are likely far off, dozens of companies are working on the basic element for such inventions: smart dust.
Smart dust refers to tiny, wireless networks of sensors. You also could think of the sensors as tiny chips, or even miniature robots. The smart dust detects data about light, temperatures or vibrations and transmits that data to larger computer systems.
Researchers hope to shrink these devices to the size of a speck of dust via nanotechnology -- the science of building molecule-size electronic devices. Some scientists see smart dust as quite possibly a game-changing technology.
"Smart dust will be one of the central industries of tomorrow," says futurist Alvin Toffler.
That's the future.
The reality is that after more than a decade of work, smart dust networks haven't reached their promise as a technology that will revolutionize medicine, security, space exploration and more.
At least not yet. Efforts to develop smart dust might be nearing the reality stage. Big outfits such as Emerson Electric EMR, General Electric GE and Cargill are ramping up interest in the technology. Tech firms like Cisco Systems CSCO are funding smart dust ventures. IBM IBM is tinkering with new smart dust designs.
And first-generation smart dust products are hitting the market.
The tiny sensors are being tapped to monitor building controls, pipelines, factory equipment and drug-making processes, says Kris Pister, founder and chief technology officer of privately held Dust Networks, which makes smart dust monitoring systems.
He says the fact that nodes of smart dust sensors can "talk" to each other through a mesh of wireless radio signals makes the technology a reliable way to track different industrial systems.
"Today at a paper mill or a chemical plant or oil refinery, they have sensors everywhere, such as on the tubes to measure flow rates or pressure in the valves," Pister said. "All of that gets wired back to a central control computer."
Smart dust is potentially revolutionary because the sensors are small enough to be put anywhere and work wirelessly, sharing data.
How Dust Works
Smart dust is based on microelectromechanical systems, or MEMs. These tiny computer chips can measure temperatures, vibrations or surface pressures. Smart sensors relay signals back to a command computer, which then compiles the data to give feedback to plant managers. Or the results could trigger an automatic response, such as turning down a building's temperature or reducing the flow of oil.
Such wireless tracking sensors are cheap. They cost just tens of dollars each, not the tens of thousands for comparable wired systems that often involve digging trenches and building outdoor conduits, Pister says.
Pister coined the term "smart dust" as a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, in the '90s. He sees a vital smart dust market rising in the coming decade.
Industrial automation and factory uses are already taking off, Pister says. Another hot area, he says, is monitoring energy use in buildings.
Dust Networks isn't alone. One rival is privately held Crossbow Technology of San Jose, Calif.
Global sales of smart dust are expected to top $1 billion in 2012, says ARC Advisory Group, up from $344 million this year.
Sales of smart dust systems are starting to snowball among industrial clients, says Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer for the Emerson Process Management unit of Emerson Electric. Zornio says smart dust networks are "the No. 1 growth thrust" for his $6.7 billion unit, which is Emerson's largest division. He foresees $500 million in annual revenue from smart dust for his firm within five years, compared with "immaterial" sales today.
Manufacturing plants are adding wireless smart dust nodes in places where it's too costly to install wired sensors, Zornio says.
"This trend won't replace something else that we're selling, it will just grow the market with new sales," he said. "That's why we're super excited about it."
Smart dust systems are catching on with large process manufacturers such as refineries, chemical plants, breweries and packaged food makers, says ARC Advisory analyst Harry Forbes. But he expects it will take five to 10 years for most industrial sensors to use wireless connections, not the standard wired ones. That advance will let users monitor systems where wires are now too costly or cumbersome.
"People see all kinds of potential value in trying new applications, but in many cases the wireless sensor technology is not quite mature enough yet," Forbes said.
Most smart dust sensors today are roughly the size of sugar cubes, not dust. But in some cases they can be made much smaller, Pister says.
"In the mid-1990s, the thinking was that someday we would make this technology as small as a speck of dust," he said. "So far, we've gotten it down to a grain of rice."
Smart Help When Parking
Dust Networks customer Streetline Inc. has designed smart parking systems for the cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles. The firm embeds sensors right onto the surfaces of parking spaces.
Drivers with passwords can activate a dashboard system to find the nearest open parking spot. Traffic managers can use it to monitor, and thus improve, traffic flows and to boost revenue from parking meters by, for example, letting the managers know when a meter has expired.
Cisco is building wireless sensor networks for gas producers, mining firms and other clients. It's teamed up with Dust Networks on a product called the Secure Wireless Plant solution, which helps companies monitor their production processes.
The growth of wireless smart dust networks, however, depends largely on the approval of more industry standards. When that happens, makers will be able to sync up various sensors to a range of wireless networks and software programs.
Global standards bodies are debating such standards. Recent approval of the new Wireless HART protocol is opening the door for more industrial deployments, Pister says.
As for privacy concerns, Pister says smart dust networks are designed with strong encryption and other security measures. "You're not going to have people who are able to steal your information without you knowing about it," he said.
Smart dust has a host of other medical, military and security uses.
Picture cancer cells in the human body glowing like Christmas lights. The light comes from minute bits of siliconlike material embedded in the cells, making their nuclei and other parts stand out so they can be studied.
Researchers dub these types of light-up materials "quantum dots." Evident Technologies, a privately held firm based in Troy, N.Y., already makes the dots for thousands of clients. They range from General Dynamics and Sumitomo Electric to small medical firms. Most buy the products in small batches for use in larger tech products or systems.
The dots, also known as nanocrystals, are semiconductors a few molecules wide. They can emit light or manifest various electronic properties. That is, the dots can attract or repel. This makes it possible someday to have them work like robots in the blood stream.
"Dots are useful anywhere you can use a semiconductor," said Evident Chief Executive Clint Ballinger, who says his firm does about $4 million in annual sales. Being crystals, Ballinger says dots can be grown in solution-filled vats, a ton at a time.
Dots come in various sizes but are usually 20 to 80 atoms wide.
They can be used as indicator lights -- injected into, say, a cancer cell tissue so that doctors and researchers can "track" the cancer. They also in theory can be used to "tag" and then track intruders in military and security situations.
Evident also sells dots as light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, for use in Christmas lights.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, have developed dust-size silicon chips that detect biological and chemical agents. Those include substances that terrorists might dissolve in drinking water or spray in the atmosphere to poison the water or air.
Michael Sailor, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UCSD, says his team is merging the tiny sensors with wireless remote sensing systems. He says the particles can be used to deliver drugs to the eye as treatment for retina degeneration.
"The particles have been tested in live rabbits for this application, and we are pushing toward clinical applications," Sailor said via e-mail.
There's speculation that U.S. forces are tapping smart dust for military purposes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon is mum on the subject. Some military watchers believe the technology is being used to track terrorist suspects so that they can be killed by U.S. warplanes or unmanned aerial vehicles.
Tuesday: The future of smart dust, IBM's sensor efforts and a Q&A with the head of the Foresight Nanotech Institute.