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Smart Dust for Spying Purposes Developed by DARPA for US Military


Feb 22, 2019
The Start of Smart Dust

Karen Tran
Mar 15, 2018

A new camera/sensor, the size of a grain of salt, has shaken up the technology world. These miniature cameras can operate wirelessly and are small enough to inject into the human body. Watch out for
Smart Dust.

Sounds like something from a movie, right? Well this invention is very real and is changing the way we research and observe.


Image courtesy of RF Wireless World

The Start of Something: Moore’s Law

The concept has been tossed around, from science studies to science fiction novels. While the invention of the device started in the mid 1990s, it was Moore’s Law that began this discussion. Moore’s Law dates back to 1965, where Gordon Moore (founder of Intel) predicted that the number of components that could fit on a single chip could double every 2 years. This prompted the idea of miniaturizing technology and has created huge change in the industry. Soon, gadgets are becoming smaller and more powerful.


from Mashable, courtesy of Intel

Creating Smart Dust: Kristofer S. J. Pister

In the early 1990s, talks of the technology and its uses came from a workshop at RAND, with a heavy focus on military applications. The concept was heavily influenced by work at the UCLA and the University of Michigan.

In the mid 1990s, Kristofer S. J. Pister created a research proposal for Smart Dust, with Joe Kahn and Bernhard Boser from the University of California, Berkeley. The project was soon approved for funding, and secured Dr. Pister’s status as the inventor of Smart Dust. In 2001, the American military has conducted a surveillance test with these devices. Having calculated the speed and direction of 142 military vehicles, the test was deemed a huge success.


from Smart Dust Research Proposal, courtesy of University of California, Berkeley
Eventually, Dr. Pister founded Dust Networks in 2004 (acquired by Linear Networks in 2011). The company has shifted its attention to commercial applications. Soon, other companies took notice due to its work in asset, environment and health monitoring. In supermarkets, automation is now becoming a reality, with promises to track inventory movement and reduce waits at checkouts with a reader that tracks everything in a shopping cart and provides bill to customers. As these sensors grow and become more intelligent, they start to adopt more tasks, like detecting humidity and temperature.

The Future of Smart Dust

Thanks to Gordon Moore and Dr. Pister, more companies are adopting this technology and are discovering new ways to utilize it.

Hewlett-Packard (HP) founded the Central Nervous System of the Earth (CeNSE) in 2010, which aims to launch billions of nanoscale sensors around to world to observe and gather data on the physical environment. The hopes is to improve the way humans and businesses manage environmental, biological and structural changes.

More and more talks of incorporating the technology with medical practices are popping up. There has been talks in integrating Smart Dust with human augmentation, through brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Elon Musk launched Neuralink in 2016, with hopes to treat brain disease and eventually lead to human enhancement.

The possibilities are endless with technology. While some might think these ideas are only possible in science fiction films, more and more companies are proving the wrong. Who knows? Next year, we might in line for brain implants or nanoscale home surveillance.


The smart-dust revolution

Sensors of the world, unite!
Nov 20th 2003

For almost 40 years we have all been subscribing to a simple dogma about the growth of the information age: progress means making more and more computing power available at lower and lower prices. Back in 1965 Gordon Moore laid out his famous law that the number of components that could be squeezed on to a silicon chip would double every year or two. Now everybody can buy a laptop computer with the computing power that entire nations were aspiring to in the 1970s.

Moore's law still has a long future. But in 2004 the belief that progress means packing in ever more computing power will be seen as far too narrow. Just arriving is another kind of information revolution, driven by the ability to manufacture billions of tiny, intelligent communicating sensors. Capable of organising themselves into networks, intelligent sensors will make up for their small brains by their immense numbers.

The intelligent-sensor revolution has its origins in a simple shift in viewpoint. Rather than trying to cram ever more computing power into the same space, imagine putting the same computing power into an ever smaller space. Big boxy computers that were state-of-the-art 20 years ago can now be made about the size of an aspirin. Very soon they will be the size of a grain of rice and, before long, a grain of sand.

Enter “smart dust”: computers so small that you would not notice if one floated in through your window on the breeze (and, of course, the CIA has already spotted what that might do for them). They lie at one extreme end of the sensor revolution that sees a glorious future in combining sensors, limited intelligence and communication abilities in vast numbers of tiny computers. Smart-dust advocates have visions of sending billions of these machines into the atmosphere so that the entire planet could be wired. Stupendous networks of communicating sensors would give the earth a digital nervous system accessible to the web and giant search engines, from which we could instantly access anything about the state of the planet, from changing weather to the state of forests.

At the other end of the sensor revolution are entirely practical applications that are just coming on the market. Already, new American start-up companies (among them Dust Inc, Ember Corporation, Millennial Net, Crossbow Technology and Intel Research) are creating highly practical devices that can sense, compute and communicate—and make businesses more efficient.

The American military is enormously interested. In 2001 they tested small (match-box rather than dust-sized) sensors called “motes”, which had been designed to act as intelligent surveillance devices. The motes were dropped from a drone plane alongside a road, set up a communication network among themselves and activated magnetic sensors to detect passing vehicles. By comparing readings among themselves, the mote network calculated the speed and direction of passing 142 military vehicles and then beamed the information back up to the drone plane when it passed overhead an hour later. The test was a complete success.

Supermarket chains are interested too. For they have realised that sensors do not even have to be smart to revolutionise daily life. Radio-frequency ID tags (RFID) are the dumbest kind of sensor and do no more than bounce back a unique signal when they are hit by radio waves of the right frequency. But they are so small that they can be built into product packaging, just like a bar code.

Long waits at supermarket checkouts could disappear. Just shop and head for the exit, where a reader will send a message to everything in your trolley, instantly read all the responses they send back and print out the bill, without your having to take a single item out to be scanned. The tags are already being used to trace the movement of goods. If the cost of manufacturing the tags by the billion gets just a little lower, they will be cheap enough to attach to individual items. Then supermarket chains will find it hard to resist automated stores that need no more staff than a few security guards.

Make sensors more intelligent and the number of jobs they can do grows exponentially. Already the first buildings are being plastered with intelligent temperature sensors that communicate with one another to ensure that cooling and heating systems function optimally. Cosmetics companies are using them to sense humidity levels in their warehouses. Industrial machinery can be fitted with vibration sensors that pick up developing faults long before they turn into a breakdown. Sensors can be scattered on fields to measure moisture and temperature and to tell farmers when is the best time to plant crops. Attached to gas and electricity meters, sensors can make meter readers redundant, as all the information can be picked up from a passing vehicle.

What is so clever about all this? In these new sensor networks, there are no wires, so installing sensors costs very little. Messages pass from one sensor to another using radio waves (or even laser beams), choosing whatever route is most efficient until messages reach the point where the information is to be picked up. By passing on messages via multiple, changeable routes, the network is self-organising, fault-tolerant and scalable—it can easily be made to grow, shrink and change configuration.

Just as important, because the network operates through short-range hops, very little power is used. Unlike a mobile phone, which runs its batteries flat in hours while communicating with distant base stations, smart sensors can keep going for years. Not far off are sensors which will scavenge power from light or just from the faint vibrations in building walls caused by distant machinery. Like a self-winding watch, they will keep going forever. Standard protocols are being written for how smart sensors operate and communicate. That means that new sensors which are added to a network can automatically inform the system what they do and then get on with their job.

With the ability to expand systems with sensors of every kind, the sensors web begins to look more like our own nervous system, where vast arrays of sensors for heat, touch, pressure and so on are embedded in our skin. Giving the earth a digital skin is just a vision now, but in 2004 it will start to seem less fanciful.

Alun Anderson: editor-in-chief, New Scientist


Smart Dust Is Coming. Are You Ready?

Bernard Marr

Enterprise & Cloud

Imagine a world where wireless devices are as small as a grain of salt. These miniaturized devices have sensors, cameras and communication mechanisms to transmit the data they collect back to a base in order to process. Today, you no longer have to imagine it: microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), often called motes, are real and they very well could be coming to a neighborhood near you. Whether this fact excites or strikes fear in you it’s good to know what it’s all about.


Adobe Stock

What can smart dust do?

Outfitted with miniature sensors, MEMS can detect everything from light to vibrations to temperature. With an incredible amount of power packed into its small size, MEMS combine sensing, an autonomous power supply, computing and wireless communication in a space that is typically only a few millimeters in volume. With such a small size, these devices can stay suspended in an environment just like a particle of dust. They can:

  • Collect data including acceleration, stress, pressure, humidity, sound and more from sensors
  • Process the data with what amounts to an onboard computer system
  • Store the data in memory
  • Wirelessly communicate the data to the cloud, a base or other MEMs

3D printing on the microscale

Since the components that make up these devices are 3D printed as one piece on a commercially available 3D printer, an incredible amount of complexity can be handled and some previous manufacturing barriers that restricted how small you can make things were overcome. The optical lenses that are created for these miniaturized sensors can achieve the finest quality images.

Practical applications of smart dust

The potential of smart dust to collect information about any environment in incredible detail could impact plenty of things in a variety of industries from safety to compliance to productivity. It’s like multiplying the internet of things technology millions or billions of times over. Here are just some of the ways it might be used:

  • Monitor crops in an unprecedented scale to determine watering, fertilization and pest-control needs.
  • Monitor equipment to facilitate more timely maintenance.
  • Identify weaknesses and corrosion prior to a system failure.
  • Enable wireless monitoring of people and products for security purposes.
  • Measuring anything that can be measured nearly anywhere.
  • Enhance inventory control with MEMS to track products from manufacturing facility shelves to boxes to palettes to shipping vessels to trucks to retail shelves.
  • Possible applications for the healthcare industry are immense from diagnostic procedures without surgery to monitoring devices that help people with disabilities interact with tools that help them live independently.
  • Researchers at UC Berkeley published a paper about the potential for neural dust, an implantable system to be sprinkled on the human brain, to provide feedback about brain functionality.
Disadvantages of smart dust

There are still plenty of concerns with wide-scale adoption of smart dust that need to be sorted out. Here are a few disadvantages of smart dust:

Privacy concerns:

Many that have reservations about the real-world implications of smart dust are concerned about privacy issues. Since smart dust devices are miniature sensors they can record anything that they are programmed to record. Since they are so small, they are difficult to detect. Your imagination can run wild regarding the negative privacy implications when smart dust falls into the wrong hands.


Once billions of smart dust devices are deployed over an area it would be difficult to retrieve or capture them if necessary. Given how small they are, it would be challenging to detect them if you weren’t made aware of their presence. The volume of smart dust that could be engaged by a rogue individual, company or government to do harm would make it challenging for the authorities to control if necessary.


As with any new technology, the cost to implement a smart dust system that includes the satellites and other elements required for full implementation is high. Until costs come down, it will be technology out of reach for many.

What should you do to prepare?

The entities who have led the development of smart dust technology since 1992 and large corporations such as General Electric, Cargill, IBM, Cisco Systems and more who invested in research for smart dust and viable applications believe this technology will be disruptive to economies and our world.

At the moment, many of the applications for smart dust are still in the concept stage. In fact, Gartner listed smart dust technology for the first time in its Gartner Hype Cycle in 2016. While the technology has forward momentum, there’s still quite a bit to resolve before you will see it impacting your organization. However, it’s important to pay attention to its trajectory of growth, because it’s no longer the fodder of science fiction. We might not know when it will progress to the point of wide-scale adoption, but we certainly know it’s a question of when rather than if.


Implantable “Neural Dust” Enables Precise Wireless Recording of Nerve Activity
First in vivo tests demonstrate ultrasound can be used to wirelessly power and communicate with millimeter-scale devices surgically placed in muscles and nerves



Therapeutic modulation of the activity of the body’s peripheral nervous system (PNS) holds a world of potential for mitigating and treating disease and other health conditions—if researchers can figure out a feasible long-term mechanism for communicating with the nerves and pathways that make up the body’s information superhighway between the spinal cord and other organs.

What does “feasible” look like? Small is the best start—small enough to someday perhaps be injected or ingested—but also precise, wireless, stable, and comfortable for the user. Modern electrode-based recording technologies feature some, but not all of these qualities. Hardwired solutions present challenges for chronic use, while existing wireless solutions cannot be adequately scaled down to the sizes needed to record activity from small-diameter nerves and record independently from many discrete sites within a nerve bundle. DARPA’s Electrical Prescriptions (ElectRx) program is focused in part on overcoming these constraints and delivering interface technologies that are suitable for chronic use for biosensing and neuromodulation of peripheral nerve targets.

Now, as described in results published today in the journal Neuron, a DARPA-funded research team led by the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences has developed a safe, millimeter-scale wireless device small enough to be implanted in individual nerves, capable of detecting electrical activity of nerves and muscles deep within the body, and that uses ultrasound for power coupling and communication. They call these devices “neural dust.” The team completed the first in vivo tests of this technology in rodents.

“Neural dust represents a radical departure from the traditional approach of using radio waves for wireless communication with implanted devices,” said Doug Weber, the DARPA program manager for ElectRx. “The soft tissues of our body consist mostly of saltwater. Sound waves pass freely through these tissues and can be focused with pinpoint accuracy at nerve targets deep inside our body, while radio waves cannot. Indeed, this is why sonar is used to image objects in the ocean, while radar is used to detect objects in the air. By using ultrasound to communicate with the neural dust, the sensors can be made smaller and placed deeper inside the body, by needle injection or other non-surgical approaches.”

The prototype neural dust “motes” currently measure 0.8 millimeters x 3 millimeters x 1 millimeter as assembled with commercially available components. The researchers estimate that by using custom parts and processes, they could manufacture individual motes of 1 cubic millimeter or less in size—possibly as small as 100 microns per side. The small size means multiple sensors could be placed near each other to make more precise recordings of nerve activity from many sites within a nerve or group of nerves.

Though their miniscule size is an achievement in itself, the dust motes are as impressive for the elegant simplicity of their engineering. Each sensor consists of only three main parts: a pair of electrodes to measure nerve signals, a custom transistor to amplify the signal, and a piezoelectric crystal that serves the dual purpose of converting the mechanical power of externally generated ultrasound waves into electrical power and communicating the recorded nerve activity. The neural dust system also includes an external transceiver board that uses ultrasound to power and communicate with the motes by emitting pulses of ultrasonic energy and listening for reflected pulses. During testing, the transceiver board was positioned approximately 9 millimeters away from the implant.

The piezoelectric crystal is key to the design of neural dust. Pulses of ultrasonic energy emitted by the external board affect the crystal. While some of the pulses are reflected back to the board, others cause the crystal to vibrate. This vibration converts the mechanical power of the ultrasound wave into electrical power, which is supplied to the dust mote’s transistor. Meanwhile, any extracellular voltage change across the mote’s two recording electrodes—generated by nerve activity—modulates the transistor’s gate, which changes the current flowing between the terminals of the crystal. These changes in current alter the vibration of the crystal and the intensity of its reflected ultrasonic energy. In this way, the shape of the reflected ultrasonic pulses encodes the electrophysiological voltage signal recorded by the implanted electrodes. This signal can be reconstructed externally by electronics attached to the transceiver board to interpret nerve activity. “One of the most appealing features of the neural dust sensors is that they are completely passive. Because there are no batteries to be changed, there is no need for further surgeries after the initial implant,” Weber said.

Another benefit of the system is that ultrasound is safe in the human body; ultrasound technologies have long been used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. Most existing wireless PNS sensors use electromagnetic energy in the form of radio waves for coupling and communication, but these systems become inefficient for sensors smaller than 5 millimeters. To work at smaller scales, these systems must increase their energy output, and much of that energy gets absorbed by surrounding tissue. Ultrasound has the advantage of penetrating deeper into tissue at lower power levels, reducing the risk of adverse effects while yielding excellent spatial resolution.

This proof of concept was developed under the first phase of the ElectRx program. The research team will continue to work on further miniaturizing the sensors, ensuring biocompatibility, increasing the portability of the transceiver board, and achieving clarity in signals processing when multiple sensors are placed near each other.

Image Caption: Each neural dust sensor consists of only three main parts: a pair of electrodes to measure nerve signals, a custom transistor to amplify the signal, and a piezoelectric crystal that serves the dual purpose of converting the mechanical power of externally generated ultrasound waves into electrical power and communicating the recorded nerve activity.
@LeGenD @KhalaiMakhlooq
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Apr 1, 2014
i think easy way to get rid of this is to take bath everyday and wash your equipment daily and make coating of equipment dust proof so no dust is able to stay on it.such dust will generate huge quantity of data which will be difficult to monitor and also winds will cause this dust to move away from the desired location which will lead to in accurate data
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Feb 22, 2019
Smart dust
DECEMBER 14, 2018

Bit by bit

Imagine a world where computers are as small and weightless as dust particles. You wouldn’t be able to see them, but these mini machines would be everywhere: you might even breathe them. A researcher named Kristofer Pister coined the term “smart dust” back in 1997, and it’s closer to becoming a reality than ever.

Smart dust is a sexier name for tiny wireless microelectromechanical sensors (a form of microelectronic mechanical sensors, or MEMS.) And we mean tiny: they’re only a couple millimeters in size. What’s the practicality of such tiny tools? Proponents visualize them as the Internet of Things on another level. Smart dust would make it possible to run a Google search in the physical world: Ask “where are my keys?” and the dust could locate them. An army could ask the same of enemy tanks (which is why the US Department of Defense is interested, too).

Smart dust could lead to smarter and safer living, but it also raises new issues about privacy, weapons, and surveillance. Whoever controls smart dust and its data could theoretically control … well, ask a dystopian novelist.


1: Ultimate target size in cubic millimeters for Pister’s smart dust motes

2x2x4: Size, in millimeters, of the Michigan Micro Mote, the smallest computer system in the world

500:1: Ratio of the Michigan Micro Mote’s power consumption to that of a human cell

0.3: Size, in cubic millimeters, of the sequel to the Micro Mote (it doesn’t retain data when powered off, so it’s arguably not a computer)

3: Months it took for IBM’s “world smallest computer” to be surpassed by the Micro Mote sequel

120: Size, in millionths of a meter, of 3D-printed camera lenses made by a team at the University of Stuttgart

>10: Years smart dust is from mainstream use, according to tech firm Gartner’s “hype cycle”

A weapon of war

Moore’s Law outlined the framework of high-performing tiny gadgets back in 1965; Intel co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that the number of components on a single chip would double about every two years. A few decades later, the military decided to make it a reality.

In the early 1990s, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Research And Development Corporation (RAND) suggested using tiny computers to provide real-time data during a battle. (The US military already employed electronic sensors during the Vietnam War, but they could be cumbersome and unreliable.)

In 1997, Pister and his colleagues from UC Berkeley submitted a paper called the “Smart Dust Proposal” (PDF); they were awarded funding by DARPA in 1998. In 2001, the UC Berkeley researchers conducted a field test: A drone dropped six small “motes” that set up a communication network and activated sensors to inspect passing vehicles. The match box-sized sensors were able to compare data, calculate the speed and direction of 142 military vehicles, and transfer that information back to the drone. Today, Pister says, the sugar-cube-size sensors his company Dust Networks makes are “basically in every oil refinery in the world.”

Smart dust FAQs

Researchers are still working on ways to power these hypothetical mini-computers; someday they could even draw energy from their environment and remain perpetually computing. But no such method has been successful or scalable so far. Let’s zoom in.

How is it powered? That’s one of the challenges. The Wall Street Journal reports that the current produced by a temperature gradient is one possibility, as is “ambient backscatter,” using existing wireless and TV signals as a power source. Vibration and solar power are also potential sources.

What’s in a mote? The Michigan Micro Mote has a Phoenix processor that’s 915 square micrometers—about the size of the statue of Abraham Lincoln on a US penny— drawing 500 picowatts and powered by a one-square-millimeter solar cell that charges a two-millimeter battery.

How do they communicate? There are two primary options: optical transmission, which is low-power but requires line of sight, and radio frequencies, which are omni-directional but require more power.

What does it run on? Arduino, a popular OS in the builder community, is easier and familiar to many; TinyOS provides a “fuller feature set.”


“It almost feels like the beginning of the internet.”
IBM VP Katharine Frase on microsensor technology in 2010

“When we first made our millimeter system, we actually didn’t know exactly all the things it would be useful for. But once we published it, we started receiving dozens and dozens and dozens of inquiries.”
University of Michigan professor David Blaauw

Little brothers are watching

Trillions of tiny self-powered monitoring devices seems like part of the perfect recipe for a surveillance state. “It’s a very, very, very huge potential privacy invasion because we’re talking about very, very small sensors that can be undetectable, effectively,” Lee Tien, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocate, told CNN in 2010—long before criticism swelled over how closely tech giants like Facebook and Google watch our every move. These companies own huge swathes of valuable user data and are already struggling with the responsibility. Smart dust would increase that burden exponentially. It could be used to improve productivity and safety, but also to constantly track people.

Dust to dust

What would the world look like after years of smart dust use? Maybe Neal Stephenson knows. Two years before Pister coined the term, the novelist described the use of “mites” in his novel The Diamond Age—“nano-drones” that “watch the streets, search for things, act as an artificial immune system cleaning harmful microbes from the sky, and even crawl up and down your nervous system.”

Like current smart-dust seers, Stephenson thought about the good and bad uses. But he also thought about what would happen when the technology was useless: a black dust called “toner,” consisting of the dead mites, which becomes a pervasive part of the environment.

What can MEMS do for you?

Beyond the sexy/spooky potential of MEMS for space and surveillance, which could be a decade or more from fruition, non-dust microsensors are flourishing—but at $0.10 to $0.50 each, they’re still too expensive for use in inexpensive products. According to an analysis in Spectrum, to work for a throwaway purpose like sensing the freshness of a package of sausage, silicon will never get cheap enough. That’s why researchers are working on paper and plastic as replacements.

The brain game

In 2016, engineers at UC Berkeley developed tiny sensors called “neural dust” that could be implanted within the body—even in the neural cortex—and transmit data via ultrasound to be stored externally. This kind of smart dust has only been tested in mice, but if it was successful in humans, it would create a new brain-machine interface and could enhance different nerve therapies.

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