Sep 06 2019

Smart Dust Technology: What is It & How Does it Work?

The next iteration of the Internet of Things packs a powerful punch in a small package.

Two forces drive the evolution of the Internet of Things: Speed and size. Organizations are leveraging enhanced broadband connectivity to drive real-time analytics and on-demand intelligence, even as new manufacturing techniques make it possible to squeeze compute power onto millimeter or micrometer architecture

The result? Smart dust — also known as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) — capable of scaling up IoT scope even as size scales down. 

While business applications for smart dust are already emerging, this tiny technology could offer substantial benefits for post-secondary processes. Here’s how going small could deliver a big impact for education.


What Is Smart Dust?

The term “smart dust” was coined by Kristofer Pister of the University of California, Berkeley in 1997 to describe his wireless array of sensor nodes

Originally a tongue-in-cheek nod to the late-’90s trend of pinning “smart” to the description of any new technology, MEMS are now grabbing attention from research firm Gartner as an emerging technology, and the market is set for “strong growth” through 2019, according to a press release on recent related research

MEMS are tiny, 3D-printed sensors designed to work in tandem. They’re purpose-built with both mechanical and electrical components; newer iterations draw power from subtle vibrations or even the surrounding air, making them ideal for highly sensitive applications.

Higher Education Smart Dust Adoption at Scale

While smart dust got its start as part of a Berkeley project, two decades of IoT development found potential for MEMS across multiple industries. Some current applications include:

  • Neural Dust: Berkeley teams have implanted smart dust sensors in rats to help monitor and control nerve and muscle activity. These tiny MEMS have no batteries, instead relying on ultrasound to both take measurements and draw power.
  • Automotive Safety: As noted by Electronics 360, smart dust sensors are now being used to power safety mechanisms in vehicles. MEMS-based accelerometers in airbags have improved performance and reduced total cost, while government-manded tire pressure sensors can intelligently collect tire data using vibration as their power source.
  • Constructive Knowledge: When building One World Trade Center, construction firms entombed smart sensors in concrete blocks to ensure they were correctly laid.

Reduced size and enhanced speed also inform more forward-thinking applications, such as:

MORE FROM EDTECH: See how universities are using IoT to mitigate security risks on campus.

Universities Prepare for Smart Dust Integration

Gartner predicts that innovation across systems on a chip, advanced sensors and the intelligent mesh that ties these devices together will continue to drive IoT development through 2019 and beyond.

But what does this mean for post-secondary institutions? How do they prepare campus networks for the advent of low-cost, commercialized MEMS development?

First is wireless network support. Schools such as Princeton University are currently deploying “wireless first” models that prioritize seamless connections across high-density endpoints. This is critical for campus MEMS applications, since these devices rely on wireless links to create large-scale sensor networks and deliver critical data.

Post-secondary institutions must also develop new applications capable of both communicating with and controlling smart dust deployments. As noted by Inside Higher Ed, mobile applications are now “changing how teachers teach and students learn,” but the advent of mobile-first environments also has an impact on campus IT management. 

Fixed desktop resources aren’t enough to keep pace with evolving student expectations — and won’t be able to manage microscopic MEMS networks.

With post-secondary schools facing the same malware and phishing threats as large enterprises, security is paramount. 

TechRadar points to key practices such as improved authentication, regular user training and a clear information security policy to help secure networks. 

In addition to protecting student information and administrative documentation, improved security measures are critical to ensure smart dust networks — which are collecting millions of on-campus data points — are protected against a potential breach or compromise.

MEMS' Effect on Higher Education Campuses

What’s the potential for smart dust at post-secondary institutions? Beyond course integration and research applications, MEMS offer several opportunities to help streamline campus life, including:

  • ID Cards: Recent research suggests a beneficial relationship between radio frequency identification and MEMS. For campus ID cards, combining these two technologies could allow wireless, granular access permission control along with the ability to locate students in case of emergency.
  • Data Analytics: Embedded MEMS in science and computer labs, student union halls and sports facilities could empower large-scale, low-power data collection to help schools better understand how facilities are used and identify the need for proactive maintenance.
  • School Safety: Smart dust networks in on-campus residences and high-value facilities could act as intelligent alert and alarm systems to both improve student safety and frustrate would-be criminals.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Why IoT security needs an interdisciplinary approach.

Smart Dust Is at Micro Scale with Macro Impact

Enhanced wireless connections and improved 3D printing have created a high-value business case for smart dust applications. But this technology also offers direct benefits for post-secondary institutions: With the right infrastructure in place, schools can leverage the macro potential of micro MEMS.

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