Self-Organizing Smart Dust -Planetary Explorers of the Future?


The future of space exploration will witness a revolutionary change with a new breed of planetary explorer in design by engineers at the University of Glasgow. These tiny, "Smart Dust" shape-shifting devices can be carried on alien winds like dust particles, and are smart enough to communicate, fly in formation and take scientific measurements.

The concept of using smart dust swarms for planetary exploration has been talked about for some time, but this is the first time anyone has looked at how it could actually be achieved. Computer chips of the size and sophistication needed to make a smart dust particle now exist according to Dr John Barker of the University of Glasgow. Smart Dust would use wireless networking to communicate with each other and form swarms.

"In our simulations we've shown that a swarm of 50 smart dust particles can organize themselves into a star formation, even in turbulent wind," Barker said. "The ability to fly in formation means that the smart dust could form a phased array. It would then be possible to process information between the distributed computer chips and collectively beam a signal back to an orbiting spacecraft."

A possible application for smart dust would be to launch several tens of thousands of smart dust elements into a wind borne environment on a remote sensing mission involve navigation and data gathering/sensing over a period of time. Casualties would be inevitable.

However, the central problem Barker points out is how to arrange for the collective self-organized motion of the smart dust ensemble in the presence of hostile terrain and weather. The team has investigated the possibility of dynamically changing the shape of the smart dust elements so as to permit controlled navigation.

Algorithms have been devised for the adaptive shape change of smart dust modes that permits a change in drag coefficient depending on location and heading. Monte Carlo simulations were performed for passive and smart dust for swarms of smart dust devices transporting in the wind-dominated environment of the Martian landscape.

 It is concluded that relatively simple shape changing algorithms with nearest neighbour wireless communications augmented by longer range Small Worlds links are sufficient for long-range synchronised navigation. Practically all the energy requirements are met by entrainment of the smart dust in the wind flow provided reasonable fluctuations exist. The implementation of the shape-changing has been investigated experimentally and theoretically through the use of an electro-active polymer sheath encasing each mote. We are also studying scaled-down versions of self-organizing smart dust for applications in liquid environments. A scaled-up version for application to probes to distant solar systems is also under study.

"By 2020, we should have chips that have components which are just a few nanometers across, which means our smart particles would behave more like macro-molecules diffusing through an atmosphere rather than dust grains," Dr. Barker said.

Casey Kazan via


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