The science/engineering goal of the Smart Dust project is to demonstrate that a complete sensor/communication system can be integrated into a cubic millimeter
package. This involves both evolutionary and revolutionary advances in miniaturization, integration, and energy management. We aren't targeting any particular
sensor, in fact there is no direct funding for sensor research in the project (but we've got quite a few to choose from based on a decade or two of outstanding
MEMS work at Berkeley and elsewhere).
We're funded by DARPA, so we will demonstrate Smart Dust with one or more applications of military relevance. In addition, we're pursuing several different
applications with commercial importance, and we've got a long list of applications to work on if we only had the time. Here's a sampling of some possible
applications, in no particular order:
- Defense-related sensor networks
battlefield surveillance, treaty monitoring, transportation monitoring, scud hunting, ...
- Virtual keyboard
glue a dust mote on each of your fingernails. Accelerometers will sense the orientation and motion of each of your fingertips, and talk to the computer
in your watch. QWERTY is the first step to proving the concept, but you can imagine much more useful and creative ways to interface to your
computer if it knows where your fingers are: sculpt 3D shapes in virtual clay, play the piano, gesture in sign language and have to computer translate, ...
Combined with a MEMS augmented-reality heads-up display, your entire computer I/O would be invisible to the people around you. Couple that with
wireless access and you need never be bored in a meeting again! Surf the web while the boss rambles on and on.
- Inventory Control
The carton talks to the box, the box talks to the palette, the palette talks to the truck, and the truck talks to the warehouse, and the truck and the
warehouse talk to the internet. Know where your products are and what shape they're in any time, anywhere. Sort of like FedEx tracking on steroids
for all products in your production stream from raw materials to delivered goods.
- Product quality monitoring
temperature, humidity monitoring of meat, produce, dairy products
Mom, don't buy those Frosted Sugar Bombs, they sat in 80% humidity for two days, they won't be crunchy!
impact, vibration, temp monitoring of consumer electronics
failure analysis and diagnostic information, e.g. monitoring vibration of bearings for frequency signatures indicating imminent failure (back up that
hard drive now!)
- Smart office spaces
The Center for the Built Environment has fabulous plans for the office of the future in which environmental conditions are tailored to the desires of every
individual. Maybe soon we'll all be wearing temperature, humidity, and environmental comfort sensors sewn into our clothes, continuously talking to
our workspaces which will deliver conditions tailored to our needs. No more fighting with your office mates over the thermostat.
- Interfaces for the Disabled (courtesy of Bryndis Tobin)
Bryndis sent me email with the following idea: put motes "on a quadriplegic's face, to monitor blinking & facial twitches - and send them as commands
to a wheelchair/computer/other device." This could be generalized to a whole family of interfaces for the disabled. Thanks Bryndis!
- The dark side
Yes, personal privacy is getting harder and harder to come by. Yes, you can hype Smart Dust as being great for big brother (thank you, New
Scientist). Yawn. Every technology has a dark side - deal with it. [this was my original comment on "dark side" issues, but it made a lot of people think
that we weren't thinking about these issues at all. Not true.]
As an engineer, or a scientist, or a hair stylist, everyone needs to evaluate what they do in terms of its positive and negative effect. If I thought that the
negatives of working on this project were larger than or even comparable to the positives, I wouldn't be working on it. As it turns out, I think that the
potential benefits of this technology far far outweigh the risks to personal privacy.
A lot of people seem to be worried about environmental impact. Not to worry! Even in my wildest imagination I don't think that we'll ever produce enough Smart
Dust to bother anyone. If Intel stopped producing Pentia and produced only Smart Dust, and you spread them evenly around the country, you'd get around one
grain-of-sand sized mote per acre per year. If by ill chance you did inhale one, it would be just like inhaling a gnat. You'd cough it up post-haste. Unpleasant, but
not very likely.
Consider the scale - if I make a million dust motes, they have a total volume of one liter. Throwing a liter worth of batteries into the environment is certainly not
going to help it, but in the big picture it probably doesn't make it very high on the list of bad things to do to the planet.