Forget The Internet Of Things. The Future Is Smart Dust

Why even bother attaching sensors to actual things? What if they just floated all around us in the air and everywhere?

Forget The Internet Of Things. The Future Is Smart Dust
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The “Internet of Things”–or the idea of connecting all machinery, buildings, and stuff, together into one big sensing, recording, and data-logging mega-network–is a hot concept in industry at the moment. Companies like General Electric and Cisco are busy making a node of everything. But, to some people, the “Internet of Things” is yesterday’s buzz-topic. The future is even more ubiquity (if that’s possible). It’s something called Smart Dust.


That’s right. “Smart” and then “Dust.” What in the world is that? “Sensors that float in the air throughout the entire city and track movement, biometric indicators, temperature change, and chemical composition of everything in their city,” as Dan Rowinski, writing in ReadWrite Future Tech, explains.

That’s much better than a few sensors here and there:

Putting sensors on stuff? Boring. What if the sensors were in the air, everywhere? They could monitor everything—temperature, humidity, chemical signatures, movement, brainwaves—everything.

Apparently, DARPA and the Rand Corporation have been working on smart dust since the early 1990s (as you would expect), and smart dust has made it to Gartner’s Hype Cycle For Emerging Technology.

Building smart dust isn’t easy, though. Each fleck needs to have its own sensors complete with a “microscopic operating system” and the ability to communicate with a base station. Teams at Berkeley and Stanford Universities are working on different parts of the problem. “The goal is to make the entire package as small as possible and last as long as possible, while being able to support a microscopic operating system that enables the whole thing to run,” says Rowinski.

He warns that we first likely to see smart dust in a military context. But then it could have lots of decent civilian uses as well. Here’s what the University of California scientists say:

Smart Dust may be deployed over a region to record data for meteorological, geophysical or planetary research. It may be employed to perform measurements in environments where wired sensors are unusable or lead to measurements errors… In biological research, Smart Dust may be used to monitor the movements and internal processes of insects or other small animals.

The Internet of Things: so last year.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.