Or rather, smart dust is getting closer to being able to walk— which means it’s closer to being able to swarm. (Also see this more technical description.) This also means we can think seriously about a new kind of robotics:

“MEMS technology has shrunk so much that we can start to make microrobots which are essentially smart dust with legs,” [graduate student Sarah] Bergbreiter says.

The Smart Dust-style sensors and on-board computer processing are what will provide the microrobots with their autonomy, Bergrbreiter says. While each robot will control its own activity, the power will come from deploying them in swarms. For instance, much like ants build a nest, a swarm of microrobots dropped on Mars could work collaboratively to construct a satellite antenna so they can transmit their environmental readings to an orbiting spacecraft. Even more amazing, Bergbreiter says, they could crawl on top of each other to build a larger silicon structure out of themselves.

“In my opinions, robotics has always meant big lumbering machines,” Bergbreiter says. “I like the idea of making very simple robots, but a lot of them. If one component of a big robot fails, the robot is finished. But if one microrobot dies, the rest of them continue to function and the task can still be completed.”

[from Berkeley Engineering Lab Notes]