Magazine / Smart Solutions

Column Bernd Schöne: Tracking Tech – Watch My Dust!

More than a decade ago, rumors made the round among tech writers that intelligence services had managed to develop miniscule surveillance microphones that could be stirred by the handful into buckets of paint going on the walls of office buildings. Instantly dubbed “smart dust,” these tiny sensors could then be linked together via wireless technology to form all-hearing, self-organizing snoop networks at a fraction of the cost of bugging a building by conventional means.

These miniscule mikes, it was said, were so extremely energy- efficient that they would continue to listen in on conversations for years and years. The ideas seemed entertaining at the time, but not even James Bond, we all believed, would ever be able to make it happen. Maybe it’s time we all woke up. “No IoT device is so wildly fantastic (or outrageous) as ‘smart dust,’” David Monahan, an information security executive for Enterprise Management Associates recently wrote on ForeScout. He explained that he believes “IoT miniaturization seems to be working its way into the realm of nanotechnology.”

Bernd Schöne

Some sensors now can even make their own electricity.

Bernd Schöne
is a veteran German Internet journalist and an expert on cybersecurity


Smart dust is essentially a bunch of small wireless microelectromechanical sensors (MEMS) that can detect everything from light to vibrations. A tiny device with extraordinary capabilities, these miniature mikes are equipped with nano-structured silicon sensors which can spontaneously assemble, orient, sense, and report on their local environment. This new technology combines sensing, computing, wireless communication capabilities, and autonomous power supply within the volume of only a few millimeters. It is very hard to detect the presence of smart dust and it is even harder to get rid of them once deployed.

The concepts for smart dust emerged from a workshop at RAND Corporation, a think tank, back in 1992, which led to the development of a working “mote” or sensor node smaller than a grain of rice. While much of the research is highly classified, we can safely assume that scientists are now down to the size of dust particles.

Spying aside, let’s take a minute to ponder what other uses smart dust could be put to. How about farmers mixing a few handfuls of smart dust sensors in with their seeds? Later, they could detect the needs of the crop, which could result in better fertilization management. Or how about dusting my next Thanksgiving turkey before it sets out on its way to my local supermarket, keeping an uninterrupted record of the bird’s temperature along the way so I can be sure it won’t poison me and my family on the Big Day? Doctors could dust me, inside and out, and maintain a constant record of my bodily functions so when the time comes they will be able to determine which of my vital signs have deteriorated and exactly what to do about it – instead of relying on average dosages and such primitive forms of medication.

There are literally thousands of applications for smart dust if you think long enough. How about detecting corrosion in aging pipes before they leak? Or improving safety, efficiency, and compliance in industry? I sincerely hope that one day every wrapped item of food in my refrigerator will be able to tell me how fresh it is. Smart dust will be capable of measuring vibration, so when I buy a TV set or a computer drive I can check to see if it was handled with care all the way from the factory to the store shelf. Museums could dust the works of the Old Masters and monitor them for the effects of sunlight or humidity before they fade or molder away – after all, that Rembrandt may just have cost us a cool 23 million bucks!

The key to all this, of course, is power consumption. Modern wireless protocols like WirelessHART, 6LoWPAN, Bluetooth Low Energy as well as S-NET in Germany are so good at conserving power that they can function for up to a decade. These protocols also have the ability to self-organize thousands of particle-sized sensors into close-knit networks capable of transmitting the data they gather to a router and from there off into the cloud. Cost? Negligible!

Some sensors now can even make their own electricity. They use light, temperature differences, vibrations, or even variations in the magnetic field of nearby power lines to drive themselves for years and possibly even for decades. This is called “energy harvesting,” and a number of manufacturers of these so-called low-power microcontrollers (LPMs) such as Texas Instruments, STMicroelectronics, and Microchip Technology are already producing them in bulk. So maybe it’s time we dusted off our old notions of what is possible in the field of miniaturization. Yesterday’s science fiction is today’s business opportunity!

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