A neural dust mote. Image: UC Berkeley
Equipment Technology

The Intelligent guide to: smart dust in mining

Having gotten the nod from Gartner in its 2018 Hype Cycle, smart dust could be coming to mines near you in the near future. Here's what you need to know

What is smart dust?

Smart dust, which is a bit of a misnomer given the current size of the technology, is a term used to describe a group of very small sensors called microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), sometimes called ‘motes’. They are not, as the name suggests, microscopic; most MEMS range from 1mm in size down to 0.02mm, but their tiny size does make them suitable for scattering over or embedding into surfaces such as paint to collect datasets.

Each mote contains a microprocessor for control logic and signal processing, and sensors that can detect variables such as movement temperature, vibration, magnetism and chemicals as well as location.

Powered by a micro-battery (some of which can last up to 10 years between charges) or solar cells, motes can communicate with each other by optical or radio frequency means to form autonomous networks. The operating system and software is designed to execute short pieces of code for a specific purpose. For more information on their capabilities, try this article by Forbes.

Where was the idea conceived?

Smart dust came about during the 1990s in the US as part of a collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – an arm of the US Defense Dept – and RAND Corp. The technology was then further developed by teams at the University of Michigan, UCLA and the University of California, Berkeley, with the first research paper presented in 1997. The project received funding a year later and led to the creation of a working mote smaller than a grain of rice, and larger devices which formed the basis for the TinyOS project at Berkeley (TinyOS is an embedded, component-based operating system and platform for low-power wireless devices, such as those used in smart dust).

Where is it now?

The concept of smart dust has since been expanded on and investigated by a number of organisations. Kris Pister, a professor of electrical engineering who led the project at Berkeley, went on to establish a company called Dust Networks in 2002 (now Analog Devices); side note – Pister is now co-director of the Berkeley Sensor & Actuator Center and the Ubiquitous Swarm Lab which is worth a look if cyber-physical systems and the IoT interests you. Communications firm Cisco ran an interview with him in 2008 based on smart dust which is another good read.

Dust Network’s Smart Mesh technology was also picked up by Emerson Process Management in 2010 for use in its networking solutions, and other companies thought to be applying the technology include GE.

In 2015, the University of Michigan developed the Michigan Micro Mote which is probably the closest thing that exists to what we would call ‘smart dust’. You can read about the project here.

Cambridge Consultants published an article in 2016 called ‘Where’s my smart dust?’ which explained the state of the technology well. Although I would expect that it has moved on a bit in the last three years, especially with the advent of 5G technology and the now ubiquitous use of the IoT.

Regardless, the potential applications for smart dust in mining are endless if or when it becomes possible to mass produce sensors that are small enough. Accenture ran a good article by Lee Rose in 2015 outlining a few potential areas that could benefit. EdTech published this article in late 2018 which talks about more general applications for smart dust and, for those with a WSJ subscription, this one is an interesting read.

The key thing to remember is that ‘smart dust’ is not a product or brand name, it’s a generic term for a type of device so when it does begin to change the face of mining, there’s a good chance you won’t even know it’s there. Rather apt don’t you think?

If you know of any other projects in the mining sector that are researching or developing smart dust-based technologies I’d love to hear about them- please do get in touch.



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