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December 7th, 2008
Imagine a cloud of sensors, each the size of a grain of sand, blown aloft by hurricane winds and relaying data on the storm to weather stations below. Or picture tiny robotic chips drifting through a human artery to locate, and eradicate, a hidden clot.
While the above advances are likely far off, dozens of companies are working on the basic element for such inventions: smart dust.
Smart dust refers to tiny, wireless networks of sensors. You also could think of the sensors as tiny chips, or even miniature robots. The smart dust detects data about light, temperatures or vibrations and transmits that data to larger computer systems.
Researchers hope to shrink these devices to the size of a speck of dust via nanotechnology — the science of building molecule-size electronic devices. Some scientists see smart dust as quite possibly a game-changing technology.
"Smart dust will be one of the central industries of tomorrow," futurist Alvin Toffler told IBD.
That's the future.
The reality is that after more than a decade of work, smart dust networks haven't reached their promise as a technology that will revolutionize medicine, security, space exploration and more.
At least not yet. Efforts to develop smart dust might be nearing the reality stage. Big outfits such as Emerson Electric (EMR), General Electric (GE) and Cargill are ramping up interest in the technology. Tech firms like Cisco Systems (CSCO) are funding smart dust ventures. IBM (IBM) is tinkering with new smart dust designs.
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