Smart dust

Scientific American (2016):

“Neural Dust” Could Enable a Fitbit for the Nervous System

“A technology with the potential to blur the boundaries between biology and electronics has just leaped a major hurdle in the race to demonstrate its feasibility.”

“A team at the University of California, Berkeley, led by neuroscientist Jose Carmena and electrical and computer engineer Michel Maharbiz, has provided the first demonstration of what the researchers call “ultrasonic neural dust” to monitor neural activity in a live animal. …”

“… It consists of an external transceiver and what the team calls a “dust mote” about 0.8x1x3 mm size, which is implanted inside the body. The transceiver sends ultrasonic pulses to a piezoelectric crystal in the implant, which converts them into electricity to provide power. The implant records electrical signals in the rat via electrodes, and uses this signal to alter the vibration of the crystal. These vibrations are reflected back to the transceiver, allowing the signal to be recorded—a technique known as backscatter. … “This opens up a host of applications in terms of embodied telemetry: being able to put something super-tiny, super-deep in the body, which you can park next to a nerve, organ, muscle or gastrointestinal tract, and read data out wirelessly.”” (…)

“The team also plans to use multiple transceivers to keep better track of motes if they move. This would also allow steering the ultrasonic beam to communicate with multiple implants. “The vision is to implant a bunch of these motes anywhere in the body and have a patch that sends ultrasonic waves to wake up the sensors and receive information for any desired therapy,” Seo says. “Everything would be sealed in, with one patch over the site that can talk to the implants individually or simultaneously.””

“The original aim of the project was to develop the next generation of brain-machine interfaces, Seo says. The group published a theoretical analysis in 2013 showing the technique could work with implants as small as 50 microns, a scale comparable to neurons.”

Forbes on smart dust surveillance:

“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.” (…)

“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.”

Bernard Marr: Smart Dust is Coming. Are you Ready? Forbes, 16 Sep, 2018.

Big Tech is relatively full of hype, but it’s crystal clear which direction tech engineers are going. They are building drones and nanobots as small as possible, down to molecule levels:

BBC Science Focus reports: “The smallest crawling, untethered micro-robot is only 0.2mm long. It is powered through a special floor that contains tiny electrodes.”

“Scientists at the University of Mainz in Germany recently took the first step towards a molecular-sized nanobot, when they created a heat-powered motor using a single vibrating atom trapped in a nano-sized cone of electromagnetic radiation. Amazingly, it has the same working principles as a car engine: expanding, cooling, contracting, then heating.”

Peter Bentley: What’s the smallest robot? (No date)

Nanowerk (May 04, 2020): Nature Electronics (“A flexible microsystem capable of controlled motion and actuation by wireless power transfer“) is reporting on the development of the smallest microelectronic robot in the world, which is driven and controlled by a twin-jet-engine (see Figure 1).”

“The microelectronic robot is 0.8 mm long, 0.8 mm wide and 0.14 mm tall. To compare: a one cent piece has a diameter of around 16mm. The micro-robot is extremely flexible, motile and equipped with various functionalities. In addition to Chemnitz University of Technology and IFW Dresden, both the Technical University of Dresden and the Chinese Academy of Sciences Changchun are involved in the project.”

Nanowerk: The smallest microelectronic robot in the world (May 04, 2020)

The New Economy (2019):

Microscopic ‘smart dust’ sensors are set to revolutionise a range of sectors

“Networks of tiny sensors known as ‘smart dust’ are on the cusp of reinventing the Internet of Things. These devices will unlock unprecedented levels of data collection, but their development unearths important security questions” (…)

“A number of uses are already being considered: tiny motes of smart dust could be deployed across a farm’s crops to monitor the needs of the plants, from determining watering times to pest control. Elsewhere, smart dust could track bees to find out where they encounter various chemicals that threaten their populations.”

“In medicine, embedded defibrillators and pacemakers already carry out health-monitoring processes, but smart dust could take that to the next level. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, were the first to propose what they called ‘neural dust’ – millimetre-sized sensors that could be implanted in the body and used to stimulate nerves and muscles, as well as to monitor the activity of different organs. In 2016, they successfully built the first of such sensors, measuring three millimetres long, one millimetre wide and one millimetre across.”

“One day, Blaauw hopes millimetre-scale devices like neural dust could not only take measurements, but also take action. For instance, a project his team is working on involves implanting tiny sensors into tumours to monitor the effectiveness of treatments. “This is very advantageous over blindly treating the tumour,” Blaauw said. “But down the road, it would be great if those little sensors, those little systems, could also themselves provide treatment by emitting certain hormones or medications or other kinds of bio-simulations.””

“The construction industry has previously demonstrated success with larger smart-dust-like sensors. For instance, when workers laid the concrete for the basement of One World Trade Centre in New York City, Bill Ray, a research director at the consulting firm Gartner, said they threw sensors directly into the concrete. Throughout construction, the sensors enabled workers to monitor what was going on inside a block of concrete, ensuring that it set properly. By the time the batteries in the sensors died, their job was done. Although these sensors were not millimetre-sized smart dust, Ray told The New Economy that it gives the industry a look at just how varied the different applications of smart dust could be.” (…)

“Because of these roadblocks, smart dust could still be decades away from revolutionising the IoT on a commercial scale. According to Gartner’s Hype Cycle, it will take more than 10 years for smart dust to achieve mainstream use.” (…)

“Whether it is Google, Amazon or a construction company you have never heard of, the thought of large institutions placing microscopic sensors capable of collecting audio and visual data anywhere they choose brings up a raft of questions around privacy and security: how is that data stored, and by whom? Will consumers be able to opt out of having their data collected?”

“Experts agree that as long as the issue of security is addressed from the start of the development cycle, it will not be difficult to ensure smart dust is protected from hackers. “[Security] will always be a battle, but even at a sub-millimetre scale there is no reason that dust motes can’t have banking-level encryption and authentication on their communications,” Pister said.”

“But the trouble with the gradual evolution of new technologies like smart dust is that researchers tend to focus first on making the technology function. Security only becomes a concern when the devices seep into the commercial and consumer markets – and even then, typically after a security scandal occurs. For researchers using smart dust technology to study bees or butterflies, it is easy to see why security is of little concern, according to Blaauw. “But when this technology starts becoming widely used, which is what I think we’re going to see in the next decade or so, then security will have to be added in,” he said.”

“Nevertheless, the real questions around the security of smart dust are part of a bigger story around data collection and privacy. “We can make [smart dust] secure; technically making it secure is not the problem,” Ray said. “The issue is, how do we decide what level of security we like?” For example, Facebook is a secure system – that, however, has not stopped the social media giant from becoming embroiled in one scandal after another in recent years. These scandals are not about technical security, but about Facebook’s role in sharing data without its users’ knowledge or consent. As Ray explained: “The issue… is not the level of security; it’s the decisions about how to manage that data.”” (…)

“Once a security framework is established, smart dust can start to act as the eyes and ears of businesses and organisations. Medical professionals could soon streamline diagnostics and treatments with the help of internal sensors, while a sprinkling of smart dust could allow manufacturers to monitor their inventory from the factory to the shelf. The arrival of networks of minuscule sensors will allow unprecedented levels of data collection.”

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