Computer In A Speck
Of Dust -
Miniature Airborne
Intelligence Technology
By Jack Smith
Whenever there is danger and we need information, we usually send in humans: at crime scenes, during nuclear accidents, in wartime. It is human life we risk to gain intelligence. But why not use "smart dust"? That's right, smart dust.
Incredible as it seems, scientists for the first time are creating tiny computerized sensors the size of specks of dust that can be scattered into the air and send back information - in the future, even pictures - as they float back to Earth.
"It's a question of having it be light enough and having a large enough surface area that the air currents can keep it aloft," explains Professor Joseph Kahn at University of California, Berkeley. Researchers at the University of California have built a prototype the size of a matchbox that contains temperature, barometric pressure and humidity sensors, and has the same computing power as an IBM desktop did 15 years ago.
"There's nothing in this thing that we can't shrink down and put into a cubic millimeter of volume," says Professor Kristofer Pister at U.C. Berkeley.
An Even Smaller Model
The new prototype is about the size of an aspirin tablet and will get even smaller.
"In the time frame of a year," Kahn predicts, "we should have out first working prototypes that are the size of a grain of sand."
Smart dust particles could send back information using a minute laser that has already been tested, transmitting data 13 miles across San Francisco Bay.
Because the Pentagon is paying for the research, smart dust might at first have mainly military uses:
"Distributing a network of these sensors all around the desert in Iraq, for example, and looking for SCUDs [missiles], or looking for biological weapons," Pister says.
Smart dust might have confirmed whether the Sudanese pharmaceutical plant the United States bombed two years ago really was making chemical weapons. But the dust could also be scattered from planes to check the weather inside storms, warn jetliners of air turbulence and discover almost anything where humans can't risk going.
It's the power of a PC, in a speck of dust.

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