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'Smart dust' to explore alien worlds

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A high-ranking British boffin has proposed that other planets might be explored by "smart dust", clouds of tiny electronic devices which would drift intelligently on alien atmosphere currents while communicating by Wi-Fi.

John Barker, professor of electronics at the University of Glasgow, outlined his ideas at the Royal Astronomical Society's 2007 national astronomy meeting. The professor's team at Glasgow has already done extensive research into smart dust and "smart specks", and he believes that devices which could communicate and manoeuvre themselves about in mid-air can already be built.

Clouds of such tiny robots might be delivered to other worlds by automated space probes, avoiding the need for human explorers with their requirements for life support – not to mention their complex emotional baggage and possible tendency to wig out under the stress of space travel.

Core circuitry in each dust mote would be able to change the shape of its plastic casing by applying different voltages to it, so manoeuvring on the winds like a sort of miniscule droid hang-glider. The optimum sized device for cruising the thin airs of Mars, for instance, would be approximately as big as a grain of sand. Larger mini-machines would be required in the thicker Venusian atmosphere.

But the professor's ambitions don't stop at Mars and Venus. "The same technique might also be used for exploring distant solar systems," he writes on his website.

"The idea would be to use solar sailing variants of smart dust," which would drift not on atmospheric winds but solar radiation ones, presumably taking centuries to reach their target stars and worlds.

Professor Barker is also involved in an attempt to build an "electronic nose", and research into semiconductor theory.

Smart dust is clearly nanotechnology, at least in its smaller forms. Like other nanotech, it can be associated with scary sci-fi style phrases. "Mote swarm", "shape-changing", and "self-assembly", for instance, appear on the professor's website. According to the BBC, he also openly used the word "mothership", during his RAS presentation.

Nonetheless, only a truly gutter-crawling journalist would speculate that the human race might one day travel to strange new worlds – only to find that its smart-dust advance probes had evolved into a fearful hive-intelligence shapeshifting swarm, self-assembling out of control and eventually colonising the entire galaxy via solar-wind travel.

Still, Prof Barker candidly admits that: "In our simulations, we have shown that a swarm of 50 dust particles can organise themselves into a star formation, even in turbulent wind."

It can be only a matter of time until clouds of micro-robotic dust can take human form in vampire fashion, or perhaps assemble themselves into knives or stabbing weapons, T-1000 mimetic polyalloy style.

Cheerier buzzwords altogether are to be found at SpeckNet, home of the "smart speck". The scientists there describe themselves as members of the Speckled Computing consortium, which has a far matier ring to it than "mote swarm". Who could be irrationally afraid of a speckled computer?

In any case, it's early days to be beating the techno-panic gong on this one. Professor Barker says there are many obstacles to be overcome before his dust-droids are ready to fly. Most significantly, chemical sensor packages are still too large to fit aboard such teeny platforms. The "electronic nose" will evidently need to be seriously miniaturised so the organised motes can smell your fear research alien atmospheres effectively. ®

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