Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
Space Science

"Smart Dust" to Explore Planets 85

Ollabelle writes "The BBC is reporting how tiny chips with flexible skins could be used to glide through a planet's atmosphere in swarms to gather data and report back. 'The idea of using millimetre-sized devices to explore far-flung locations is nothing new, but Dr Barker and his colleagues are starting to look in detail at how it might be achieved. The professor at Glasgow's Nanoelectronics Research Centre told delegates at the Royal Astronomical Society gathering that computer chips of the size and sophistication required to meet the challenge already existed.'"
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

"Smart Dust" to Explore Planets

Comments Filter:
  • Goo (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ajehals ( 947354 ) <a.halsall@pirateparty.org.uk> on Wednesday April 18, 2007 @05:40PM (#18788635) Homepage Journal
    ...tiny chips with flexible skins could be used to glide through a planet's atmosphere in swarms to gather data and report back...

    Replace "gather data" with "decimate indigenous life" and "report back" with "multiply exponentially", and you have either a classic horror movie or an Iain Banks novel.

    Actually its quite scary either way... grey goo anyone?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I can easily replace "decimate indigenous life" with "aid indigenous life" and "multiply exponentially" with "respect nature" and suddenly we have nano-environmentalists.

      Do we still have a problem if the goo is green?

      Your concerns are valid in general, but this does not strike me as persuasive argument for this particular technological instance.
      • by Ajehals ( 947354 )
        Oops, t'was intended mainly as humour however, your replacements would presumably be mutually exclusive, surely respecting nature would rule out aiding anyone. Although I suppose we could now have a debate about what constitutes nature or natural and we could establish whether a lifeform indigenous to a particular environment can evolve to the point where it is no longer 'part' of that environment but 'above' it. - There has got to be a better way of expressing that....
        • Oh! I guess my reflexes are too good. Especially the one which jerks my knee ;)

          This is a very interesting thing you say, about organisms evolving beyond their environment. This rings true for humanity in it's current state.

          One might even look at all land and air-based lifeforms on this planet as having evolved "above" the environment of the ocean. But naturally, all organisms still rely on the ocean for existence.

          Humans seem to be the first creature from this planet that may just be able to completely sever
          • by Ajehals ( 947354 )
            Humans seem to be the first creature from this planet that may just be able to completely sever the cord with our home ecosystem by creating artificial ones.

            Seriously, what's artificial? I assume (If I'm wrong shoot me down, assumption being the mother of all f**k-ups) you are talking about orbital or deep space based habitations in this instance, but I have real difficulty defining artificial. If we are a product of an ecosystem how can we ever introduce something that is not natural? I should point out
            • TurboDarwinism(tm)! Has that slashdot username been taken yet!?

              So, I love this argument that nothing is truly unnatural. I subscribe to this notion wholeheartedly.

              Just because humanity's technology is destructive does not automatically make it unnatural. After all, we are not yet the most destructive organisms to have lived on this Earth.

              As organisms which cause species' extinction go, we are something of a distant second (at least). We need look no further than the ancient cyanobacteria [wikipedia.org] for inspiration on
            • by jbengt ( 874751 )
              "Seriously, what's artificial?"

              Simple, anything belonging to art or craftmanship - that is, made by man - is artificial.
              I'm not arguing that it means unnatural, after all we do speak of "the nature of man".
              The use of 'artificial' to mean fake is really only applicable when you're referring to something that is an imitation.
    • Aye. Ijon Tichy [wikipedia.org] must be turning in his astral grave.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by SkWaSH ( 562395 )
      I just finished reading 'Prey' by Michael Crichton. This stuff scares me now. Of course who would ever be stupid enough to make bad decisions in order to meet big deadlines? Nobody ever does that!
      • Who would ever take Michael Crichton's particular brand of crap seriously? The guy writes in the same vein as L Ron Hubbard.
        • by Fred_A ( 10934 )
          Except his stuff is usually fun to read and he doesn't start lunatic cults. Well, he does blabber inanities to politicians sometimes apparently, but it's not as bad. At least most of his books remain fun if often silly.
        • History seems to show that the sci-fi storytellers ultimately turn out to be the most successful future predictors.

          Who would ever take H.G. Wells' particular brand of crap about traveling to the moon seriously.

    • Hey...that sounds a lot like how life on Earth started! When are we scheduled to report back, anyway?
    • The idea of introducing ANYTHING to another planet's ecosystem just strikes me as, to put it bluntly, utter stupidity and idiocy.

      As if it wasn't enough for us to pollute our own planet with tiny particles and change its entire ecosystem, now we want to cover other planets in our technological waste and effect their ecosystems? Regardless of if there is life on these planets or not, the introduction of the pollutant will effect the ecology and function of the planet, eg. the weather system.

      Haven't we learned
      • by DerWulf ( 782458 )
        What's the value of leaving planets that are not inhabited by intelligent life untouched? So mars should stay a very boring, very cold rock just for the sake of being natural? If can't go there, explore there, enjoy it we might as well blow it up because at this point it seems we are the only species that can attach value to anything in a meaningful sense.
    • by cbacba ( 944071 )
      grey goo requires self replication if I recall properly. This sounds like a variant to the notion of crime detection by releasing dust clouds of nantech camera/recorders - go in and vacuum up the crime scene to checkout who done what to whom. (bad english intentional - as in a who done it movie). Such notions bring about the concept of big brother - big time. Whether such things will become plausible remains to be seen. Off-hand, it sort of sounds like BS - the 'let's do it because it's possible' syndr
      • by Ajehals ( 947354 )
        The bonus of this method, presumably, is that anyone at the crime scene who breathed in any of the NAno-CRIme-DEtetor-DUst (NACRIDEDU (R)(TM)(etc)) get a free internal medical exam in HD with 6.1 surround sound.
        • by cbacba ( 944071 )
          LOL I sorta doubt it's going to be surround sound or even hi-fi.

          Then again, what does happen if someone inhales dead nanotech equipment?

          Personally, I doubt there's much liklihood of any practical application of this sorta stuff. Assuming you can find any of it, how is there going to be a connection to hookup - and if it's wireless, how's one going to distinguish between this thousand units and that thousand units in the dust pan?

          I expect there will be some nanotech success stories eventually, I just don't
  • by KWTm ( 808824 ) on Wednesday April 18, 2007 @05:40PM (#18788639) Journal
    So, not being satisfied with having our waste strewn across just our own planet, now we're going to introduce the rest of the solar system to our All-Products-Are-Disposable culture? Or are these micro chip/probes going to clean up after themselves and come back to Earth?
    • by jdray ( 645332 )
      We'll probably deploy them on Earth first. On the battlefield.
      • Damn you. I completely agree with you. I was going to post a smart-ass "toner wars anyone?" comment with a link to Wikipedia; but I find, to my complete slack-jawed amazement, that there is no Wikipedia entry for "toner war". There is, which I thought a great touch, a link from "Gray goo" [wikipedia.org] to "Ice-nine" [wikipedia.org], a relationship which had never occured to me, but no "toner war". Now I'm going to have to write (OK, start) a Wikipedia entry for "toner war". This [wikipedia.org] if you have no idea WTF I'm talking about.
        • by jdray ( 645332 )
          Sorry to have scuttled you there. If it helps, your link to the Wikepedia article on Diamond Age has encouraged me to read it. Snowcrash is one of my all time favorite novels, and, oddly enough, I've never read anything else by Stephenson.
    • I don't know if you've noticed but the universe is a pretty big place and solar systems appear to be as common as can be. I'm worried about pollution on Earth, but I think you'll have to work harder than that if you want people to worry about pollution elsewhere in the universe.
      • Sometimes you just have to cut your losses. Earth is too hard to protect so the environmentalists are getting a head start protecting the rest of the galaxy :D
    • by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Wednesday April 18, 2007 @06:16PM (#18789069) Journal
      Look, even if we deploy 1 million of these spread out on Mars, I doubt that you would even find one if you looked for 10 years. There is more "pollution" (in terms of weight) that comes in via meteorites over a month, then would be in these million. Don't believe it? Then look closely at the moon and Martian surface. Those holes are not there just to look pretty.
      • Then look closely at the moon and Martian surface. Those holes are not there just to look pretty.

        You realise you just lowered the self esteem of a thousand crater-faced geeks, don't you?
      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by StrahdVZ ( 1027852 )
        I am sure that is what the Europeans who arrived on Australia and other pacific islands thought... right before they inadvertently introduced smallpox and decimated the populations. Or lets not forget the cats on ships whose kittens became the feral creatures that decimate local wildlife. Even the smallest outside influence can affect the function of a balanced system. Humans are a stupid people and we have a history of doing stupid things.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by drsquare ( 530038 )
          Planets are not balanced systems, they're lifeless hellholes. A few chips falling on them won't hurt.
          • Planets are not balanced systems, they're lifeless hellholes.

            Earth is a planet, is it a lifeless hellhole? Or are you merely implying that some subset of all planets might be lifeless hellholes? All planets not Earth are lifeless hellholes? All planets that are lifeless hellholes are, well, lifeless hellholes, except the ones that aren't?

            The categorical statement is fun, and sounds cool, but is generally not worth a damn and doesn't really contribute anything to the conversation.

            We don't know to what ext

        • Look, everything that NASA launches out of gravity well is sterile. Nothing left to grow. That includes ALL of our spacecrafts. Is it possible that something has survived? Possibly. But then it has to survive space and then the planets. The chance are very unlikely. Heck, we even crashed Galileo into Jupiter to avoid the chance that it would strike Europa or one of the other planets. I am not worried about this. Well, at least not from NASA.
  • by Timesprout ( 579035 ) on Wednesday April 18, 2007 @05:41PM (#18788651)
    When they get to the Dyson planet in the Hoover nebula.
  • if we as a species are discussing this idea in earnest, why would little green men with technology advanced enough to fly here to submit us to probes? that this exists as a concept pretty quickly kills the idea that 'if we've been visited, we'd know about it.'
  • Seems like a very costly operation to me. These chips could be used to report back on data on a calm atmosphere and produce recurring feedback if their signal strength is significant enough. The other case (and more costly operation is) where they are instantly destroyed by say 800mph gas / electricity storms and the best feedback you could hope for is possibly wind sweep pattern / storm strength (useful in its own right but the chips would probably be damaged before suitable data is collected).
  • Like this is new news. Pixies have been doing this for years. Do you think they sprinkle it just to make you fly? C'mon. They're merely keeping an eye on you.

    Just be careful the next time you think you see a powdery substance on your ass, the patriot act isn't going to help you.
  • at the physicists home:

    "honey, where's my research project?" whilst hearing the reliably and heart-warming sound of a hoover doing its best.

    argh. i didn't really write that, did i?
    /away being ashamed of myself.
  • How would earth/humanity respond to such a nano-invasion? I find myself chuckling at the idea of a full-on test being run on the closest earth-like planet (earth, oddly enough!) with a sufficiently large enough group of folks who didn't get whatever warnings were published in advance to demonstrate exactly how paranoid we (as a species) generally are...
    • Well, we wouldn't necessarily know if we had been "nano-invaded". The sensors could even be disguised as small bugs with sufficient technology.
      Hmm always thought these ants where too clever... runs out on an ant-hunt
      • If you haven't gathered the information, how do you know how to camouflage the sensors? And if the sensors aren't camouflaged, how are you going to keep the 'War of the Worlds' (panic associated with original radio broadcast) from happening. Do we just guess that 'planet x' probably has cockroaches?
  • At least our dust is getting smarter...
  • On a related note, I wonder why JPL keeps focusing on a few big Mars rovers instead of lots of small ones. Smaller rovers, roughly Sojourner-sized, could do basic investigation of curious features. Having lots of small rovers would allow NASA to explore more risky places, like the alleged newly-discovered caves, the "ice trees", and Vallis Marineris (spell?). Right now they keep finding flat, safe spots because the rovers are nearly a billion dollars each. If you send a dozen small rovers instead, then you
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Bozdune ( 68800 )

      I wonder why JPL keeps focusing on a few big Mars rovers instead of lots of small ones.

      Maybe because it costs so damn much to get a payload to Mars, you might as well send a payload that's going to pay back. Sojourner was only designed to last 7 days; and even after 83 days it had only traveled 100 meters. Compared to what the big rovers have accomplished, Sojourner was a joke.

      You need a big vehicle with big wheels or tracks and a complex suspension system to navigate around a rock-strewn plain, which by

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Tablizer ( 95088 )

        Maybe because it costs so damn much to get a payload to Mars, you might as well send a payload that's going to pay back.

        Why would 12 microrovers cost more than one big rover? (The next one under preparation is much bigger than even Spirit.)

        Sojourner was only designed to last 7 days; and even after 83 days it had only traveled 100 meters.

        I meant Sojourner-sized, not Sojourner technology. Sojourner relied on a separate lander to send messages back, and thus couldn't wonder far. We don't need that. I am th

        • first off 12 little rovers, unless you plan on landing them all one one place, need 12 different rides, and 12 different landings, with 12 different nerd brigades to land them, and then when they land, all can really do do is take pretty pictures, they don't carry enough gear to analyse stuff properly, which as nice as the pics are for giving space obsessed nerds on /. a big boner, don't really do much to further the hunt for water, or tell us much about the Martian environment's chemistry, you need to be a
          • by Tablizer ( 95088 )
            12 different landings, with 12 different nerd brigades to land them

            I don't see why this would be a significant cost. Once you do a few you get more efficient at it anyhow. It's called "economy of scale".

            and then when they land, all can really do do is take pretty pictures, they don't carry enough gear to analyse stuff properly

            They would have remote spectrometers. True, this is not nearly as good as contact spectrometers, but the idea is to take a general survey of some of the odder features of Mars, per
    • They've definitely considered it, but the costs don't scale as well as you might think, and the preference has almost always been increased capability rather than increased coverage.

      Remember economies of scale can be applied to increasing mass, not just increasing quantities. For one launch, one landing, one chassis you can carry more instruments. Not just more, but more complex. The MER's each carry a stereo high res camera, stereo navigation camera, 2 stereo hazard cameras, microscopic imager, mossbaue
      • by Tablizer ( 95088 )
        Don't forget that Sojourner was not self-sufficient.

        I've covered that already in a nearby reply. It is the *size* I was considering, not the technology of Sojourner.

        Remember economies of scale can be applied to increasing mass, not just increasing quantities.

        But multi-spot coverage is also good. I am proposing using both, but let the small ones survey first. Further, there are some very curious spots on Mars that are too risky for a regular rover. Remember, part of the benefit of my proposal is to be
  • by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Wednesday April 18, 2007 @06:32PM (#18789303) Journal
    First we crash probes into their neighborhoods, then we put skid-marks all over the place with our wheel-dragging rovers, now we aggravate their allergies.
  • Now we just have to be careful we don't inhale the experiment.
  • battery (Score:2, Interesting)

    by dominious ( 1077089 )
    I wonder if the demand for collecting and distributing data in real time would be feasible with such small
    batteries. Battery lifetime is a challenge itself for smart dust, what happens when the application requires
    data to be transmitted all the time in order to monitor changes constatly, how long would the nodes last? In
    battlefields there's no need to transmit data unless something happens, like an explosion will trigger an event.

    Anyhow, this is a great idea and makes a very good project!
  • ... about this technology falling into the wrong hands? Like, say, those of the United States government? If you thought the NSA telecommunications spying was bad, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
  • Since this "Smart Dust" concept was introduced [berkeley.edu] in 2001 by UC Berkeley, I'm waiting for them so say something. It has been a pretty popular term over the past years in the Wireless Sensor Network community, but always referred to the Berkeley work. However in the article they do not mention anything. Or maybe the journalist skipped that part?
  • Attribution?! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by tcmoore4 ( 1090237 )
    Kris Pister, an EECS professor in MEMS at Berkeley, coined the term "Smart Dust" and has done a ton of work on it. I remember him mentioning the goals of the project in a class in 1999, and he touched upon all the accomplishments mentioned in the article, most of which were achieved. If you search on "Smart Dust" in Google, his research project site is the first that comes up. So how can their be no mention of Pister, his research, his company "Dust Networks", or Berkeley in the entire article? http://rob [berkeley.edu]
    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      "The Invincible", a 1960's novel by noted SF author Stanislaw Lem explores on something suprisingly similar, although self-organizing arrays of micro-robots are a result of natural cyber-evolution there, in fact they "devolved" from highly advanced macro robots which survived the end of a distant civilization due to a supernova's explosion.
  • ... now with Astrofleas.
  • I seem to remember on SciFi channel some programs in which streaks were found in sunlight with a camera in a shadow. Now, If the aliens were using nanoparticles to research earth, the data presented would have a very good explanation = the aliens were researching earth with dust particles. The fact that they appeared to move in intelligent ways is further evidence. So, don't try to patent these nano explorers because there is prior art in UFO videos.
  • I have often wondered about sending a bunch of cubesats out to explore the solar system.
    Even if all they carried was a simple camera we could collect lots of interesting data.
    Plus it may give us a better idea of where to send the more expensive probes
  • I remember this movie from when it was called Twister... (but I don't remember the space part)
  • Truly "Smart Dust" would clean itself out of my computer case and rifle cabinet the moment it saw the irritated look on my face. At the very least, they should make it able to say "Gesundheit!" after someone sneezed from inhaling a cloud of it.

    However, there is a Sexual Harassment liability that comes with it:

    Some FemiNazi would most definitely complain the moment she finds out a female astronaut was sent out to collect it after the data collection was complete.
  • Anything nano must be possible, and good. At least that's the buzz.

    But, hmmm, funny how you only hear this kind of buzz from people that have not a clue about the basic laws of scale, as related to surface area versus volume, wavelengths of radio and light, and surface tension.

    In a nutshell, start with a cell-phone with camera, and ponder what happens as you shrink it by a factor of ten, again and again. Surmise what happens to it's audio and video sensor resolutions, the efficiency of xmitting antenn

    • Right, but you seem to be assuming that these devices are all a) submicroscopic and b) incapable of cooperating to form larger structures. Visualize a group of bacterial-sized machines that can come together to form an antenna.
      • Well, there are two basic problems:

        cart-before the horse:

        In order for those tiny things to gather, they'd have to, individually, be able to sense, navigate, communicate, and move. You have to explain that basic stage first before you can assume they can do the job once aggregated.

        Basic problem:

        As far as I know, we can't build devices of convenient sizes and with unlimited funds to sense, navigate, communicate, move, and aggregate into any useful function. It's an awfully huge leap of faith to just

        • Cart before the horse: They do need to be individually mobile and able to sync up their actions with one another to produce meaningful behavior, yes. But there are already microscopic systems that work together in aggregate despite individually being incapable of conceiving of the tasks to which the gestalt gets put. You're talking to one, and unless you happen to be a particularly insightful chatterbot, you are one. No one cell can comprehend or meaningfully model an organism, but the rules that govern th
          • Using biology as an example is a cop-out, unless you're willing to concede that Nanotechnology is just another name for "animal husbandry".

            >Nanotechnology is a new engineering discipline.

            No, it's been around for 20 years.

            >but it's already an industry.

            No, it's a buzz-word-- an industry would be building something. Nanotech has burnt up over $400 million in capital, with no tangible results other than sunscreen.

            >-nothing insurmountable or fundamental.

            Try reading up about the issue of

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. -- Thomas Alva Edison