‘Smart dust’ is the next step to a connected enterprise
07 March 2017
A wireless technology breakthrough from product design and development firm Cambridge Consultants is bringing the vision of ‘smart dust’ a step closer to reality.
The idea of tiny sensors embedded in paint to constantly monitor the stress on aircraft during flight, for example, could move from the realms of science fiction into the brave new world of the Internet of Things (IoT).
The key is a radical shift in the cost of the most expensive part of the Bluetooth Smart chips at the heart of every connected IoT device – the radio. Cambridge Consultants has used its all-digital radio technology Pizzicato to dramatically cut the silicon cost to just seven cents – less than a tenth of the current cost.
Getting rid of the analogue element of silicon radios means they can transcend current physical barriers, as well as directly benefit from Moore’s Law – further shrinking in size, cost and power consumption with each new generation.
Today, this could be a case of making personal care truly personal. Instead of a ‘smart’ toothbrush that tells you how well you brush your teeth, the Bluetooth Smart chips would be small enough and cheap enough to embed in each individual throwaway toothbrush head – so the toothbrush would know, for example, how often each family member was brushing their teeth.
But in the future it could mean the chips would be small enough to become smart dust. This opens the door to embedding them in paint to monitor things like aircraft stress or how vehicles are being driven and crash impacts to help with traffic accident investigations.
Mountains could be seeded with tiny temperature sensors to act as an avalanche early-warning system – and fields could be sprayed with smart dust to give real-time information about soil temperature and moisture content. Around the home, smart paint in a room could measure temperature, humidity or noise – while you could print your own smart clothing labels that could be linked to personalised washing cycles.
"To date, the cost of a radio has been determined by its analogue components – until you eliminate those, Bluetooth will always be limited by the price point," said Rob Milner, head of smart systems at Cambridge Consultants. "By massively reducing the cost of a technology that has a long range and can communicate with the billions of connected devices already deployed, we’ve helped open up more scope for revenue-generating and disruptive digital services.
“We kick-started the Bluetooth market by being the first in the world to create a single-chip Bluetooth radio – and now we will kick-start the IoT by being the first in the world to create a fully digital radio transmitter.”
Reducing the cost of Bluetooth chips is only the first generation of Cambridge Consultants’ visionary work in ultra-low-cost IoT. Next steps to mature the technology involve simplifying the overall product architecture by reducing the number of components and improving ease of assembly to achieve greater cost savings. Revolutionary work on battery technology, passive electronics and product housing is also under way.