GEOG 583
Geospatial System Analysis and Design

Technology Trends - Smart Dust and Sensor Networks


This week's trend focuses on micro and nanotechnology and sensors. Specifically, I want to introduce you to emerging technologies around sensor networks, Smart Dust and embedded sensor networks. Both of these trends have the possibility of transforming what we are able to learn from our environments.

Smart Dust are tiny computers that are designed to function together as a wireless sensor network. Currently, Smart Dust particles are quite small - about the size of a grain of rice. But, in the near future, it's expected that the technology will advance so that each sensor is as small as a dust particle or a grain of sand.

The basic idea behind Smart Dust is that you could drop thousands of tiny sensors over a landscape and create an ad hoc wireless sensor network where there isn't one already. Moreover, you can do it in a way that has almost no perceivable footprint (so you can imagine that most of the funding toward this work is coming from military folks, right?).

Take a look at this video, Future World - Smart Dust Micro Computers, for a quick (and rather over-heated) overview on Smart Dust from a program that originally aired on the Discovery Channel (2:20).

Click for Transcript of Future World Video

But in the future, every square inch of every city will be alive with intelligence because every street and every building will have a network of microcomputers built right into them.

Dr. Kris Pister calls it smart dust.

A smart dust particle remote is a wireless sensor with sensing computation, communication, and power in one package.

These all-in-one microcomputers will be small, very small.

The size of a mote today is about the size of a grain of rice. And we've shown that we can make the circuitry small enough and light enough that eventually it will be possible to make things that are on a sub-millimeter size scale.

Tiny specks of computer smart dust will form a vast invisible network that can help manage the infrastructure of even the largest city.

Smart cities in the future will take this low power, inexpensive, small technology and basically distribute it everywhere.

These tiny computers basically record information about their surroundings: information they can send to other computers or to you.

Smart dust on the tracks will monitor your commuter train so you know it's running late. Potholes will be able to report themselves and warn your car and you'll never have to wait for a radio traffic report again.

They're monitoring the flow of traffic and giving you alerts about what route is the right way to go to keep the traffic moving.

Bridges will get a coating of smart dust particles that can warn us when they detect stress fractures helping avoid deadly collapses

But smart dust will also allow buildings and streets to recognize you and respond accordingly.

I think, increasingly, the environment will respond to who we are and adapt in consequence. The city will know where you are if you want it to. Your workplace will know you. Smart dust at the entrance will boot up your computer and smart dust embedded in the elevator doors will automatically ring your floor.

Smart dust is going to sense the environment and allow us to improve the way that we live our lives. No matter how we live in the future city it will be radically different.

Caro Ratti of MIT gave a TED talk on embedded sensor networks, and on how the way we interact with our built environment may be affected by these networks. Please watch Architecture that senses and responds (15:47).

Use this link to view Caro Ratti's TED Talk with an interactive transcript.

Deliverables for this week's technology trend

  1. Post a comment in the Lesson 8 Technology Trends Discussion in Canvas that discusses an aspect of Smart Dust and embedded sensor networks that you think has the potential to make a significant change to geography and GIS.
  2. Then, I'd like you to offer additional insight, critique, a counter-example, or something else constructive in response to one of your colleagues' posts.
  3. Brownie points for linking to other technology demos, pictures, blog posts, etc., that you've found to enrich your posts so that we may all benefit.