Feb 19th 2019

MEMS and Smart Dust: The Big Potential of a Tiny Future


The future is fantastically small. Driven by improvements in 3D printing and the rise of atom-level materials engineering, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) are quickly going mainstream as researchers and enterprises alike find use for these devices across the Internet of Things (IoT). Called “smart dust” when applied at scale, legions of tiny MEMS now offer the potential to advance everything from manufacturing and communications to data collection and health care.

Making a MEMS

What exactly is a MEMS? Tech Target described it as a “miniature machine that has both mechanical and electronic components.” Exactly how miniature depends on the type of device and its purpose, but size varies from a few millimeters to less than one micrometer. Names also vary — in Japan, MEMS are often called “micromachines,” while in Europe, the preferred term is “microsystems technology,” or MST.

Typically, MEMS are fabricated using the same methods used to make integrated circuits. New developments in 3D printing have significantly reduced the cost and time necessary to create microelectromechanical systems, in turn boosting their uptake. Packaging and handling remains a key concern, however, since MEMS must be free of outside interference or physical damage to ensure effective operation.

Current Iterations

While MEMS may seem like futuristic technology, their use is already widespread, albeit easy to overlook. For example, most new vehicles include at least 50 MEMS in various safety systems, and small system-on-a-chip (SOC) MEMS are common across smartphones to automatically adjust screen orientation or gather ambient data.

As noted by Sensors Magazine, MEMS were also critical to the development of commercially and miltarily viable drone technology. Initially little more than toys and devices for aircraft hobbyists, these craft can now be flown by remote pilots with precision and accuracy thanks to the addition of millimeter-sized inertial measurement units (IMUs), barometric pressure sensors and magnetometers, greatly improving their usability.

Existing Challenges

Packaging and transport remain challenges for MEMS, but end users must also contend with issues such as power. When integrated with devices such as smartphones or drones, power is simply drawn from the parent source, but for standalone applications, improved battery life or over-the-air power delivery must be a consideration.

According to Today’s Medical Developments, meanwhile, failure is also a critical problem. For example, if medical MEMS stop working in the middle of surgery, the results could be disastrous — especially if doctors don’t know which components have failed and which are still operating. Work from NIST, published in the IEEE’s Journal of Microelectromechanical Systems, offers potential for a MEMS tracking system that both catalogs currently operating microelectromechanical systems and notifies operators in real time if their MEMS stop working.

Discovering Dust

So what’s next for MEMS? It starts with smart dust — defined by the Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences as “tiny computers that are designed to function together as a wireless sensor network” — that can be smaller than grains of sand. Potential applications of these tiny machines include granular crop control, factory monitoring and inventory management. As noted by the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, new smart dust devices may be power efficient and small enough to draw energy from surrounding air, greatly extending their lifespan and functionality.

And that’s just for starters. Researchers from UC Berkeley recently published a paper about “neural dust,” microscopic smart devices that could be “sprinkled” on human brains to better understand neural activity without the need for invasive implants. Microscopic wirelessly connected cameras, meanwhile, offer the potential to explore incredibly small physical structures in unparalleled detail.

On a larger scale, microelectromechanical systems offer multiple benefits: Science Direct makes the case for space exploration using lightweight MEMS to lower satellite launch costs without impacting functionality, while research from Professor Ming C. Wu described the use of optical MEMS for high-speed lightwave communication.

Small Size, Big Deal

Going small offers big potential: Developments in 3D printing and materials engineering are driving the uptake of microscopic MEMS capable of collecting cellular-level data, exploring hard-to-reach places and empowering the next generation of human communication.

Northrop Grumman has a long history of research and development resulting in innovation and discovery. We’re always looking for people to join our team and participate in creating the next big thing.

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