The idea of "smart dust" -- speck-sized sensors, able to detect biological or chemical arms -- has been around for years. But now, Defense News reports, there's starting to be a bit of substance behind the hype.Currently, the tiny sensors aren't all that tiny -- pager-sized, or thereabouts. And, already, there are both civilian and military orders for the devices. But a significantly smaller version should be ready by this summer, greatly increasing the demand for the detectors.Here's a rough sketch of how the gadgets work, according to Defense News:
Each tiny device will feature power, communications, sensing and computer systems feeding into a secure, self-configuring network that can pass information locally using low-powered radios. For longer-distance transmissions to command centers, satellite communications may be used.The system is run by a microcontroller that dictates the tasks performed and controls power to the various components of the system to conserve energy a primary concern because the system can house only a very small battery...From time to time, the microcontroller will receive a reading from one of the sensors, process the data and store it in its memory. It also will occasionally turn on its communications device to transmit data to a base station or another sensor system, or to see if the system has received messages from other sensors in the network...Because of the sensors size and low cost, the military could use them in a wide variety of missions, including the surveillance of borders, underground facilities, oil pipelines or other important resources... They also could be dropped behind enemy lines to monitor adversaries and equipment. For instance, the sensors can log and report the speed and direction of vehicles, revealing enemy troop movements to U.S. troops miles away.The sensor systems were tested by the military during an early operational test at Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, Calif., in March 2001. During the test, several sensors were successfully dropped from an unmanned aerial vehicle flying 30 miles per hour at an altitude of 150 feet.Once on the ground, the systems became synchronized and were able to detect the speed and direction of several passing vehicles, including Humvees, light armored vehicles and trucks.