Who knew dust could be so smart?

Tiny, wireless sensors and transmitters, dubbed smart dust, are moving out of research labs and onto battlefields and other locations where they can track assets, detect intruders and even sense dangerous chemicals.

That's the word from a group of university-spawned start-ups bolstered by funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Homeland Security Department. Executives from those companies spoke recently at the Emerging Technologies Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

Each smart-dust particle, which developers say can be as small as a fleck of glitter, is a silicon chip with the circuitry to talk to hundreds of other chips.

Far and wide

The particles can be scattered from airplanes or throughout buildings, and form themselves into ad hoc, peer-to-peer wireless networks'often called mesh networks'that reroute data just as the Internet does when individual nodes go down.

Smart dust won't be available until late next year at the earliest, vendors said. Meanwhile, pilot projects and limited deployments are under way with sensor packages'often powered with standard AA batteries'that are the size of a pager or roll of quarters.

Current development focuses on making the nodes'dubbed motes in research at a smart-dust hotbed, the University of California at Berkeley'even smaller and more energy-efficient.
Developers working on the technology say the networking software and standards needed to make them work are already available.

'The current generation of technology is in the prototype stage,' said Jason Hill, president of JLH Labs of Capistrano Beach, Calif.

Hill, who worked with the team developing smart dust while at Berkeley, is regarded in the nascent industry as the wunderkind behind TinyOS, an operating system for networking small wireless devices.

'We're nine to 18 months of serious development away from a real-world deployment,' he said. 'The idea is to extend the Internet out into the physical world.'

TinyOS was in a pilot last June at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., that employed tiny magnetometers to detect vehicles moving through a desert. Crossbow Technology Inc. of San Jose, Calif., another Berkeley spin-off, is developing pager-size sensor/transmitter modules that will run TinyOS.

Mini chips

Ember Corp. of Boston is, with the Norwegian company Chipcon AS, developing chips it says will shrink to just 4 millimeters and drop in cost to less than $1 apiece by late next year.

'We will ship 20 million devices in the next two years,' predicted Ember executive vice president Adrian Tuck. The U.S. military piloted motion-detecting networks in the Middle East theater that use noise- and vibration-detecting sensors paired with Ember products, he said.

In October, Ember and RAE Systems Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., announced a Homeland Security pilot to monitor radiation and hazardous chemicals in shipping containers, and Tuck said another pilot will provide kits for local first-response teams.

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