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Groundbreaking ‘Smart Dust’ = Smarter Concrete?

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Introducing the Michigan Micro Mote (M3): a fully-operational computer system as small as two millimeters long.

This tiny computer, developed in the University of Michigan’s Electrical Engineering & Computer Science department, is part of a line of devices called “smart dust.” And it has some exciting potential applications for a variety of industries, including construction.

Anatomy of a Tiny Computer

The Michigan team created the M3 by stacking components in layers: Sensors for input, radios for output, a processor and memory storage, and solar cells that can power up using ambient light. This means that, even in a room that has only artificial light, the M3 can generate power to run perpetually. And it can act as a smart sensing system.

The M3 can even carry an imager with a motion detector, and can transmit data to a base station for more powerful data processing. The computer is programmed using flashes of light, after which its sensors activate periodically to take measurements, then log the data and go into sleep mode. It uses a tiny amount of power in sleep mode, further extending the battery life.

Even Smarter Concrete

While still in development, this micro computer could eventually bring some big improvements to construction.

Thanks to its ability to carry pressure and temperature sensors, it could become part of a more robust form of smart concrete that can provide important structural data during and after construction. And with the addition of imagers, micro computers could give engineers a highly detailed look at what’s going on inside a structure — which could be crucial to preventing disasters before they happen. Smart dust could even someday allow buildings to diagnose their own structural stresses and send an alert before those stresses become major problems.

The M3 still has a long road ahead of it before seeing widespread use. Still, the innovation it represents — and the promise it holds for even more powerful (and tinier) computers in the future — makes it worth following.

Image via eecs.umich.edu

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