for National Geographic News
Part of the Digital Places Special News Series
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Dust is usually a nuisance. But "smart dust" could revolutionize how we monitor and understand the world around us.
Smart dust is the name researchers have given to the idea of having handfuls of tiny, cheap sensors called motes that can be scattered around to measure all manner of things in the environment, from chemicals in the soil to scents in the air.
So far, the motes that are the size of dust particles aren't that smart, and the smart ones are far bigger than dust, as Michael Sailor puts it.
But Sailor, a chemist at the University of California, San Diego, and many other researchers are working on making the smallest motes smarter.
Sailor's group develops sensors less than a hair's breadth across. But each small device can do only one simple job: detect a certain chemical.
Other researchers are working at the problem from the opposite direction, with complex sets of sensors assembled in a box about the size of a cell phone.
Along with the sensors, the boxes contain equipment such as cameras, computer chips, and wireless communications technology for linking the sensors together to form a network. (Related news: "GPS-Equipped Pigeons Enlisted as Pollution Bloggers" [October 31, 2006].)
As high-tech gadgets get smaller and cheaper, these two research avenues are bringing the "smart" side and the "dust" side ever closer together.
"If we tried to build these [sensors] 15 years ago, they would have cost millions of dollars" a piece, said Michael Hamilton, director of the James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve, run by the University of California.
"Today they cost hundreds of dollars. And we expect in ten years, they'll be just a few dollars."
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