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Meet smart dust, the tiny data collector that’s bringing us closer together

By Evan Wade / December 6, 2013

Smart Dust

Timely information is as important during an emergency situation as it is hard to come by. When wide-scale disasters strike, utility and communication infrastructures are usually the first things to fail, leaving victims and rescue teams literally powerless to share updates across even the shortest distances.

Besides the obvious health and safety concerns, a communications outage can prevent various media outlets from reporting breaking news and make it impossible for concerned friends and family to reach affected loved ones. Smart dust has the potential to help with all of these issues and then some, including ones not caused by natural disasters.

A not-quite-bite-sized game changer

The term “dust” may be a bit of a misnomer. Each “particle” is around the size of a matchbook, or even larger if fitted with a protective shell, but considering the massive variety and amount of uses for these tiny data collectors, the name makes perfect sense. With HP’s plan to put trillions of such devices around the Earth in the next few years, these particles could become as plentiful as the specks of dust scattered across the average household.

HP’s devices work a lot like most smart sensors. Each “flake” contains several high-tech tools, including accelerometers (to record movement) and transmitters (to communicate with a “home base”), to measure the world around it and quickly ship the data back to researchers. With the protective casing installed, the finished product is roughly the same size as a VHS tape — a perfect size for inconspicuous recording of all sorts, for better or worse.

As useful as that sounds, smart dust’s real gee-whiz factor lies in its overall concept. The HP project’s title, “Central Nervous System for the Earth” (or CeNSE), should give you some idea of their plans for the technology. In short, they want to build a comprehensive, real-time data source small and inexpensive enough to deploy anywhere and everywhere there’s a need.

What kinds of data are smart dust companies collecting? In HP’s case, the hardware will be used “to aid in oil exploration by measuring rock vibrations and movement.” For other companies, the answer will revolve around the hardware they’ve produced and the info they desire.

The CeNSE’s chances of success are promising. As we’ve covered before, technology is getting smaller and cheaper while growing in power, giving tech giants and garage-based startups alike more flexibility and accessibility than they would’ve had even 10 years ago. Computers of all kinds are also cooperating with each other better than ever before, which could all but eliminate the inter-device communication problems common in the earlier days of tech.

Future use cases for smart dust

As with any burgeoning tech, the future of smart dust is rife with potential. mHealth services like the Ashalytics system could work on an even grander scale, giving health professionals, researchers and residents real-time updates on local water potability from anywhere in the world.

Municipal Wi-Fi services could potentially use a smart dust-style technology to provide high-speed 4G data connectivity in even the most rural areas of a country. Location-based apps and services could make use of smart dust “boxes” to get an idea of their users’ physical proximity to relevant businesses. A lot of technology can be crammed into a VHS-sized enclosure, which means the possibilities are practically endless.

The recent disaster in the Philippines provides another good example of smart dust’s potential utility as a crisis mitigation tool. In the future, a series of moats containing smart dust boxes could alert researchers and smartphone-carrying residents to any impending inclement weather. The corresponding app could even provide evacuation instructions or directions to the nearest shelter, while feeding researches and government officials the timely disaster-related data they need to help them make informed decisions about the situation.

The information could also help friends and family members outside of the disaster area monitor conditions in a loved one’s neighborhood, even if the affected area’s communication infrastructure has failed. HP’s CeNSE can already communicate with other “particles” up to six square miles away. That would prove invaluable during a large-scale disaster, granting all interested parties a micro-level view of the events without the need for a more standard mode of data transmission.

The evolution of microcomputing…

Ardunio and Raspberry Pi, two powerful, hackable, bite-sized computers currently on the market, further show the power of micro-sized computers. Like HP’s CeNSE, the devices are incredibly versatile and discreet. Microcomputing enthusiasts have used the miniature CPUs in everything from remote-control quadracopters to smartphone-controlled pet feeders, proving the technology is already here and ready to expand further into more specialized hardware.

If the history of technology is any indication, the devices should only get smaller as time goes on, making smart dust even easier to implement without much extra cost. Researchers are already toying with full computers less than a cubic millimeter in size, according to a recent update. The article claims this technology has potential implications for everything from “desktop to laptop to smartphone to bloodstream.”

That last item holds particular promise, especially for the mHealth field. In the future, microscopic computers could be used to accurately diagnose ailments or help solve preexisting conditions without the need for more painful, expensive and invasive procedures.

…and the evolution of data collection

Accuracy and speed can always be improved upon when collecting data. Scope — especially when disasters like the above-mentioned Philippines hurricane arise — is also a concern. All too often, researchers are forced to make assumptions off a sample set due to the inability to collect more real-time info.

Smart dust technology, be it CeNSE or some other gadget on the horizon, can facilitate communication, disseminate info, monitor atmospheric conditions and perform many other potentially life-saving functions at speeds we’ve never had at our disposal. Over time, the production of the hardware will also become cheaper, quicker and available on a larger scale. They may not be dust-sized just yet, but you can expect smart dust to make a huge impact on millions of people in the very near future.

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