Smart dust

Why the future’s big innovations are microscopic in size

Sam Ballard
21 June 2017

4 min read

From helping farmers monitor vast expanses of land to allowing amputees to control artificial limbs, solutions being worked on in multiple industries are linked by one innovation: smart dust. Compass examines why scientists and big businesses are betting big on computers the size of grains of sand.

A swarm of microscopic computers might sound like something from science fiction. But “smart dust” technology is now reality, with applications emerging in a range of sectors, from agriculture to health care. The world’s big pharma and industrial manufacturers are bolstering their teams and betting big on what researchers, including Gartner, say will become one of the world’s most important technologies.

Best classified as part of the Internet of Things (IoT) or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), smart dust comprises a network of tiny sensors – each about the size of a grain of sand – that communicate with a remote computer interface via radio waves or ultrasound, relaying data, such as temperature, vibration or, when used inside the human body, hormone levels.

That information will, in turn, elicit a direct response from a central computer, with applications as diverse as an early warning system for erupting volcanoes to an interface that can warn a diabetic about low blood sugar levels.


The potential for the technology is remarkable, according to Rob Milner, head of smart systems at UK-based advisory company Cambridge Consultants. “Mountains could be seeded with tiny temperature sensors that act as an avalanche early-warning system, and fields could be sprayed with smart dust to give real-time information about soil temperature and moisture content,” he said.

One reason smart dust has piqued the interests of so many people is because Gartner has included it on its “Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies” list since 2013. The firm believes the technology is still more than 10 years away from mainstream adoption, putting it on a similar trajectory to 4D printing, brain-computer interfaces and autonomous vehicles.

“Given its wide range of potential applications and benefits, this technology will, we believe, have a transformative effect on all areas of business and on people’s lives in general,” Ganesh Ramamoorthy, a Gartner analyst, wrote in the “2016 Gartner Hype Cycle Report for Emerging Technologies.”


The concept of smart dust was developed at a RAND workshop in 1992 and in a series of DARPA ISAT studies in the mid-1990s to explore its potential military application. In 1997, Kristofer Pister, Joe Kahn and Bernhard Boser, all from the University of California, Berkeley, presented DARPA with a research proposal.

Pister later went on to co-found Dust Networks, a company working to harness, and ultimately commercialize, smart dust. Dust Networks was later acquired by California-based Linear Technology, which in turn was sold to global semiconductor company Analog Devices, based in Norwood, Massachusetts.

“I was working on miniaturizing robots, and it became clear that wireless sensors were following exponential curves down to zero size, power and cost,” Pister said. “At the time, it seemed like everything in Los Angeles was ‘smart’: smart freeways, smart bombs, smart houses and so on. So mostly as a joke, I started telling people that I was going to make smart dust. But the name resonated with people, and it caught on.”

For Pister, the potential of smart dust in agriculture and medical applications is most exciting. “Agricultural applications have the potential to increase crop yield while reducing requirements for water, fertilizer and pesticides,” he said. “In medicine, smart dust could improve the quality of life for people with neural diseases and help us to understand how the brain works.”


Michel Maharbiz, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, is investigating one of those challenges: how can smart dust benefit the medical field.

“There is a large and growing interest in developing two-way interfaces to the human nervous system,” Maharbiz said. “By nervous system I mean the brain, the central nervous system and your peripheral nerves and the many functions that they perform – from fighting inflammation to being wired into all of your organs.”

Maharbiz and his team have succeeded in implanting the sensors next to organs, gastrointestinal tracts and muscles. The sensors contain a piezoelectric crystal that converts outer body ultrasound vibrations into electricity, which in turn powers a transistor that is in contact with the organ, muscle or nerve. The body’s own electrical impulses alter how the crystal vibrates. The crystal collects information on the changing pattern, or backscatter, which is then translated by computer algorithms, decoding the body’s key metrics such as hormone levels.

“There is academic interest in this research for fundamental neuroscience, but also for uses in futuristic prosthetics and being able to alleviate symptoms from people who have motor dysfunctions such as Parkinson’s disease,” Maharbiz said. “In addition, it has been realized that there may be many, many dysfunctions that can be treated by nervous stimulation in the periphery, like appetite, bladder control and so on. The potential list of treatments is very high.”

This potential, Maharbiz said, is why big pharma player GSK (formerly known as GlaxoSmithKline) and technology leader Verify Life Sciences, created Galvani Bioelectronics, a company located in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, England, dedicated to the development of bioelectronic medicines using smart dust technology. Galvani is “developing the expertise to place tiny devices inside the human body,” Galvani President Kriss Famm said. “These will be programmed to read and modify electrical signals passing along nerves.” The goal, Famm said, is to manage the signals to restore patients’ health.

Meanwhile, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, has started a company called Neuralink, based in San Francisco. According to the company’s trademark filings. The Economist reports that Neuralink aims to create “invasive devices for treating or diagnosing neurological ailments.”


When it comes to broader applications of smart dust, Pister’s Dust Networks has already achieved some success.

Joy Weiss, the president and CEO of Dust Networks, has been working in the field for more than a decade to develop working examples of how smart dust can be administered within an industrial setting. For example, Dust Networks’ sensor networks are now installed in Chevron’s oil refinery in California and GSK’s plant in Cork, Ireland also uses wireless mesh network to monitor its water storage tanks.

“If you can combine wire line reliability with totally wireless economics – in other words to be able to put a sensor anywhere – then the applications are limitless,” Weiss said in an interview with ARC Advisory Group, a global technology research firm. Wireless communications also improve the economics of smart dust, she said; Dust Networks can install its wireless applications in a matter of hours compared to weeks for wired systems.

However, Pister is quick to emphasize that “most of the commercial stuff out there right now is making the same mistakes that were made 15 years ago.” Like Gartner, however, he believes the smart dust industry will conquer the learning curve and play an indelible role in the lives of future generations. It’s just a matter of time. ◆

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