Tiny Computer Has Enormous Potential
Shane Laros posted on July 15, 2016 | 5016 views

The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., has a new addition—one that is at the cutting edge of new computer technology. It isn’t a breakthrough new powerhouse in computing, but instead a computer so small that one of the devices can sit on the edge of a coin.

Michigan Micro Mote temperature sensor balanced on the edge of a penny. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
Michigan Micro Mote temperature sensor balanced on the edge of a penny. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
The Michigan Micro Mote (M3) is being touted as the “world’s smallest computer” and is in a good position to defend the title. Being measured in millimeters, it may be difficult to acknowledge the specialized devices as actual computers.

As explained by Professor David Blaauw, one of the researchers who worked on the project, “To be ‘complete,’ a computer system must have an input of data, the ability to process that data—meaning process and store it, make decisions about what to do next—and ultimately, the ability to output the data. The sensors are the input, and the radios are the output. The other key to being a complete computer is the ability to supply its own power.”

The M3 is powered by the Phoenix processor, a miniscule chip with a size of only 915 x 915µm2 that is capable of switching to a standby mode, reducing its already negligible power draw even further.

Blaauw also explained the importance of Phoenix’s extreme energy efficiency. “As you shrink down in size, the percentage of the system tends to be dominated by the battery. It’s actually not hard to make chips small, but it is hard to make them low power. We could have very small chips, but we’d still end up with really large batteries.”

With an average standby power consumption of only 2nA, the M3 is able to use a small 1mm2 photovoltaic cell to be self-sustaining. This solar cell can produce 20nW to power the battery with ambient, artificial light, allowing the computer to run perpetually.

These tiny computers are specialized in what they can do. Thus far, researchers have outfitted the M3 with sensors for temperature, pressure and imaging. 

Close-up of the Michigan Micro Mote imager. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
Close-up of the Michigan Micro Mote imager. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
Cross section of the Michigan Micro Mote imager showing individual layers. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
Cross section of the Michigan Micro Mote imager showing individual layers. (Image courtesy of the University of Michigan.)
The Malso has the ability to communicate with other motes and self-organize into ad hoc networks. While the M3 can currently only transmit data with other motes within 2 meters, researchers hope to extend this up to 20 meters in the near future.

Aside from having the potential to create James Bond-esque insect-sized surveillance devices, applications of the technology are numerous—even in this early stage of development. Examples range from discrete home monitoring to medical implants that can observe a patient's condition in real time. Imagine a battlefield scattered with this “smart dust” that is able to give real-time updates to soldiers and strategists, or low-cost networked inventory management using pressure sensors. The possibilities might be as large in their impact as the M3 is small. 

Watch the video below for more information, and check the University of Michigan’s Electrical Engineering and Computer Science article for more images and details.

Recommended For You