Smartdust is a term used to describe groups of very small robots which may be used for monitoring and detection. Currently, the scale of smartdust is rather small, with single sensors the size of a deck of playing cards, but the hope is to eventually have robots as small as a speck of dust. Individual sensors of smartdust are often referred to as motes because of their small size. These devices are also known as MEMS, which stands for microelectromechanical sensors.
Smartdust has theoretical applications in virtually every field of science and industry. Research in the technologies is well-funded and sturdily based, and it is generally accepted that it is simply a matter of time before smartdust exists in a functional manner. Opponents question the risks to personal privacy, but proponents hold that the downsides are strongly outweighed by the positive benefits.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been funding smartdust research heavily since the late 1990s, seeing virtually limitless applications in the sphere of modern warfare. So far the research has been promising, with prototype smartdust sensors as small as 5mm. Costs have been dropping rapidly with technological innovations, bringing individual motes down to as little as $50 each, with hopes of dropping below $1 per mote in the near future.
Applications of these sensors are seemingly without end. Every aspect of life one examines opens up new avenues for smartdust. Smartdust may eventually be used to monitor traffic and better direct it, to accompany soldiers and alert them to any poisons or dangerous biological substances in the air, to follow people around and track their activities, to track defects in products as they come off of an assembly line, and even to enter human bodies and check for physiological problems.
Energy use is a major area of research in the field of smartdust. With devices so small, batteries present a massive addition of weight. It is therefore important to use absolutely minimal amounts of energy in communicating the data they collect to central hubs where it can be accessed by humans.
Development of smartdust continues at a breakneck speed, and it will no doubt soon be commonplace to have a vast army of thousands or millions of nearly invisible sensors monitoring our environment to ensure our safety and the efficiency of the machines around us.