Friday, March 11, 2016

Dust in the Wind - a look back at relatively recent sensor technology

     In case the Readership is not clued in to the inner workings of the intersection of academia and the Department of Defense, I'd like to take this opportunity to bring this to your attention - the Ivory Tower (in this case, UC Berkeley, bastion of communism) developed a new generation of sensor that has some rather interesting applications as well as implications.  I introduce to you

"Smart Dust".

     As a personal aside, I had NOTHING to do whatsoever with the development of Smart Dust.  I did take the time to review the concept for military applications circa 2002-2003 for experimental use in scenarios and adding guidance on what the shape of the future battlespace might be.

     Go HERE , HERE , HERE and HERE to get the gist of the concept.  In summary, it is using micro sized devices scattered in bulk to form self arranging networks to sense simple parameters, communicating optically to a distant point.  Mind you, what is in these links is all research and development circa early 2000's.  Applying Moore's Law , it is realistic to consider that this concept has come to fruition.
 By Wgsimon - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
     The small size is an interesting characteristic.  It is likely small enough to pass for innocuous dirt or sand at this point in development.  This triumph of nano engineering and very clever electrical engineering finds in its very success a root of weakness.  After all, how much electrical generation can you pack into a sensor that might be 1 cubic millimeter in size?  Perhaps some form of electromechanical generation from vibration, or perhaps thermal conversion to electricity would be workable.  I'll leave that to the established EE crowd to figure out.

     Small size also presents another problem... that of "line of sight".  Something that small will fall in great numbers into crevasses and into shadow where any illuminating and interrogating laser wavelength looking for a corner reflector will just not succeed in making a link.  Devices of that size would also be limited in antennae size for any sort of RF (radio frequency) communication.  Though the engineering challenges are great, I consider it a safe bet that the appropriate funds were put into this to make a minimum viable product at some point over the past decade or so.

     Small size has a number of advantages.  They would necessarily be astonishingly inexpensive as produced in bulk.  They would be disseminated like pelletized fertilizer from small drones.  What they'd lack in life and diverse function, they'd make up for in quantity - that could be repeated often.  What might some other issues be?  One that comes to mind is actually the EPA.  Could these sensors be so ubiquitous, so lavishly dumped on targeted areas of interest (and HERE), that the EPA might consider them a form of pollution?

Environmental Impact

A lot of people seem to be worried about environmental impact.  Not to worry!  Even in my wildest imagination I don't think that we'll ever produce enough Smart Dust to bother anyone.  If Intel stopped producing Pentia and produced only Smart Dust, and you spread them evenly around the country, you'd get around one grain-of-sand sized mote per acre per year.  If by ill chance you did inhale one, it would be just like inhaling a gnat.  You'd cough it up post-haste. Unpleasant, but not very likely.

Consider the scale - if I make a million dust motes, they have a total volume of one liter.  Throwing a liter worth of batteries into the environment is certainly not going to help it, but in the big picture it probably doesn't make it very high on the list of bad things to do to the planet. -

While the engineers may scoff at the impact, real and perceived, imagine the seething crowd anger of hippies trying to save the trees from these devices!

Operationally, what can you do to adapt to such things?  There are some means of countering a blizzard cloud of these "dust sensors" that you may consider, should this ever be a realistic scenario for you.

1)  Obscuration.
     The optical links described could plausibly be absorbed by smoke or airborne dust (oh, the irony).  A few burning tires would put quite a bit of smoke out.  This would be weather dependent and may just serve to highlight your location.  The Somali clans used this to good effect during the 'Black Hawk Down" event.  Any sort of airborne dust, the finer the better, would also drastically reduce the range and effectiveness of such sensors.

2)  Diffusion
     Not of light or other electromagnetic energy, but of YOU.  Scattered entities would rapidly exhaust any stockpile of these devices, even if shipped by the leaf bag full.

3)  Mobility 
     Simple.  Move your POS (position) often, you'll leave any clinging field of these behind.  They may be sufficiently designed to actually cling to YOU, so some form of broad spectrum analysis would be needed to "decontaminate" or at least determine who was slimed by these things.

The entire concept is intriguing, as competent amateurs can replicate these devices and functionality, but not in degree of miniaturization that is bought at vast R and D cost.  Imagine if you will how Bundy Ranch or Malheur would have been different if the besieged had the ability and intent to use small mote-like devices, perhaps based on [see following Amazon links] Raspberry Pi (or smaller) architecture, allowing them some degree of organic (as in "the unit has this within its own capability", not "granola and kale, aisle 6").

What might those devices have looked like, and how might that have been played out?
1st generation motes deploying via drone over 29 Palms - UC Berkeley

Consider that personal UAV/drone technology is more than capable of the mission profile of dropping a number of lightweight devices that would be considered disposable, even at say $50 a pop to deploy.  Would Regime elements be able to shoot down such a drone?  Would they recognize what it was to begin with?  Keep in mind reaction time to a low-flying, swift drone is minimal. If they could not detect it in time, they would risk making the sky look like the Los Angeles "air raid".  At night or dusk/dawn, this is very challenging (we had to put chem lites on them so they could be seen and recovered).  Drones are able to operate autonomously by use of GPS and small autopilots, which are now commercial, off the shelf items.  The drones are pricier, but would be re usable and would have a mission life expectancy greater than one.

     With some mission planning and a small bit of intelligence to start with (groups of up armored vehicles, a few low key helicopters and a few command post type tents are arrayed with some porta-johns and a water bull... typical profile), a dedicated and tech savvy entity could quite handily employ this concept to advantage.

Of course, such advantage as might be gained by this might be short lived.  Regime forces can call upon impressive depths of technical expertise to surveil the spectrum of energy for just such signals.  The fleeting advantage could provide initiative and allow for a peaceful resolution, instead of getting everyone LaVoy Finicum'd.

The new century is well upon us.  It is loaded with technical wonders, both good and evil in use.  There is a vast pool of technical talent and inquisitive minds out there that may make this a real thing for civil use.  The concept is proven and mature (You may have to consider some degree of weatherproofing to get some reasonable life out of them).  After all, all is fair in love and war.  For the bleeding edge in civilian hobbyist drone technology, I recommend to you .  The state of the art right now is astounding.  Use your imagination, open the aperture and cogitate.

Authored by StopShouting contributor and #FAB50 Blog Award Winner Partyzantski, the coolest cat on teh innertubes - retired Mustang, former FID embedded military Advisor, SASO trainer and scenario developer, Electronic Warfare Aviator, PME instructor, certified Force Protection and Anti-terrorism officer and combat seasoned USMC (0202) field grade intelligence officer. When not blogging or maintaining weapons proficiency at the range, he enjoys cat herding and travel to off-the-beaten-track locales. You can follow him on Twitter @Partyzantski

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