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The next step in miniaturization: a sensing system, laser communication and power source inside a cubic millimeter grain

Aharon Hauptman

In the technological parlance, this is called MEMS, which stands for "micro-electro-mechanical systems". But the people at the Department of Microrobotics at the University of California at Berkeley like to choose picturesque names for their projects: "smart dust", "electronic grains", "walking silicon". Strange names, which describe exactly what is being developed in the labs at Berkeley and elsewhere. Everything is based on the amazing progress in miniaturization; Not only the familiar miniaturization of electronic chips, but also of mechanical and optical components.

With methods similar to those of the microelectronics industry, today it is possible to "carve" in pieces of silicon not only electronic circuits but also gears, axles, arms, levers and mirrors with the tiny size of microns. If we add to this the ability of these "smart grains" to communicate with each other, with a remote central computer and with the Internet (and we are talking about a large amount of grains, thousands or maybe millions, that will be found everywhere: on our bodies, in our clothes, at home, in the refrigerator, in the office, in the car), a tremendous space is obtained for future ideas that await only the human imagination.

Such an idea, which is already under development, is the brainchild of Prof. Chris Pister of the University of Berkeley. The goal: to compress a sensing and communication system and a power source into a "grain" the size of a cubic millimeter, and in the future even less. More than that: a "swarm" of such grains will be able to function as one coordinated entity, with all the grains communicating with each other in order to carry out their mission. And what is the mission? Here the imagination can start to run wild. If you're thinking of a swarm of dust-sensors providing military intelligence or perhaps being used for industrial espionage, you're not exaggerating (wipe the dust quickly, the enemy is listening!).

The one who funds Pister's "games" is DARPA, the US Advanced Security Research Agency. Research in the field began in 1993, after a special thinking workshop held for DARPA reviewed the expected consequences of the electro-mechanical miniaturization revolution and the progress in "autonomous systems" (robots capable of independent decision-making) on ​​future warfare. Among other things, there is talk of the possibility of developing, and not in the distant future, the "fly" - a tiny sensor with the ability to move independently, which will be used in "bands" that will gather valuable intelligence, or warn of the presence of chemical warfare agents and others. There is also talk of a slightly more futuristic version - the "wasp": a "fly" that not only receives and transmits information but also "stings" - physically damages various systems.

But Pister and his friends foresee many other applications for the "smart dust" - much more sympathetic. For example, a virtual keyboard: a comfortable glove with "smart grains", which sense the movement of the fingers and wirelessly transmit the appropriate commands to the computer (basically, you can dispense with the glove and attach the grains directly to the fingers). And in fact, why settle for a keyboard if it will be possible to sculpt three-dimensional shapes in "virtual plasticine" in this way, play a virtual piano, or converse in sign language when the computer translates the signs into speech?

Another future application is the management of all grocery stocks at home (or in a grocery store), or as Kister says: "The bottle talks to the box, the box to the container, the container to the truck, the truck to the warehouse, and the warehouse to the Internet. You will always know how many groceries you have, where they are and what their condition is." Another idea is a means of communication for those suffering from severe physical disabilities. We have already talked about the language of signs, but think of a person paralyzed throughout his body who communicates with his environment with the help of "smart grains" attached to his eyelids or to another organ that is able to move; And imagine a hospital where all the devices are equipped with networked "smart grains" (the syringe "knows" if it is inserted into the right patient); Or another version in which these components are integrated into a baby's clothing and constantly sense the breath and heat and warn of problems; or "smart dust" dispersed in the atmosphere for accurate weather forecasting, including tracking the formation of a tornado. Pister envisions planes emitting smart dust particles every few seconds, giving all planes in the vicinity real-time information about turbulence and air pockets.

Fister has already succeeded in creating a "smart grain" with a size of 5 mm. Not a small achievement, considering that this tiny particle includes, in addition to electronics, a laser diode and a mechanical system that moves a tiny mirror at high speed and thus enables the transmission of optical signals, and also a solar cell that provides the necessary energy. Within a year or two they hope to compress all of this into a "grain" of one millimeter (close to the size of a grain of sand), which will be able to move on its own. And the price? About 10 cents per unit within a few years, Fister predicts.

Dr. Hauptman is a senior researcher at the Interdisciplinary Center for Technological Forecasting at Tel Aviv University

{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 2/11/2000}

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