Navigant Research Blog

Smart Dust Has Yet to Settle, but the Hype Flourishes

Neil Strother — September 7, 2017

Smart dust … it sounds like a magical substance sprinkled on dumber things. Which is kind of true. The concept has been making the hype-cycle rounds late this summer and setting off some industry buzz among megatrend watchers during an otherwise lackluster news and information cycle.

But smart dust is not all that new a concept. Not long ago, it might have been known by the more mundane and geeky term micro-electromechanical systems, or MEMS, which is common in the computer chip world. Lump it together with the much hyped artificial intelligence (AI) notion and presto, smart dust gets new life.

Motes Not Dust Mites

So, what is smart dust? It is a swarm of tiny electronic sensors, some evidently smaller than a red blood cell, designed to float in the air and do various things. These tiny devices, known as motes, are self-powered. The idea is to unleash hundreds or thousands of them, have them interconnect wirelessly, and then perform a task or set of tasks. Think of releasing a batch over a farm for testing soil chemistry or pesticide levels.

Smart Dust for Energy Management

This smart dust could also be used in homes or commercial settings to reduce energy use. That was one of the use cases imagined by Kris Pister, a professor at the University of California Berkeley and smart dust pioneer. He has been tinkering with smart dust since at least 2001, when California was in the midst of an energy crisis. Back then, he worked on the technology with colleagues at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) in an effort to find new ways to conserve energy. The idea never quite took off as imagined.

The idea for dust networks goes back further to when the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and RAND Corporation worked on the idea in the early 1990s. One can imagine the use of smart dust over a battlefield, feeding field commanders with relevant data in real-time to get the upper hand on an enemy. The idea can even be traced to novelist Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy; dust in the books is a mysterious cosmic particle that is a central plot device.

A Cloud of Potential

Needless to say, smart dust motes have not made much of an impact outside the labs. Nonetheless, given the potential and the many swirling technologies of AI (e.g., deep learning, machine learning, smart robots, and the rest), smart dust’s future could be quite amazing, though that remains on the horizon. For now, one can keep the idea of smart dust on the radar while focusing on the more practical emerging technology trend affecting the grid and other industries, namely the Internet of Things, a topic extensively covered by Navigant Research.

One response to “Smart Dust Has Yet to Settle, but the Hype Flourishes”

  1. Douglas Prince says:

    Hmmm, maybe the geeks got it wrong. It won’t be the computers and Skynet that takes over the world. Maybe it’ll be the dust.
    BE AFRAID OF DUST! DESTROY ALL DUST WHILE WE CAN! AAAAAARRGGHHHHH!!!!!

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