May 25, 2022

If you want to control the temperature, humidity and exposure of more than 100 square kilometers of forest, you will have to spend a lot of time domesticating technical trees. But what if you could scatter your censers the way dandelions and elms scatter their seeds? UW researchers have assembled tools that are light enough to be airborne.

The project pushes the boundaries of small and specialized computers, and although still in the prototype stage, represents an interesting direction for embedded electronics.

“Our prototype shows that you can use a drone to drop thousands of devices in one go. They will all be airborne a little differently, and in fact, with a single drop, you can create a network of 1,000 devices,” said Shyam Golkota, a UW professor and a prolific instrument maker.

This primarily became possible due to a significant reduction in the mass of electronics, the removal of any type of battery. Equipped with just a few tiny sensors, a wireless transceiver and a few tiny solar cells, the gadget weighs less than 30 milligrams.

After dozens of attempts, a windbreak was created and it eventually reached the size of a bicycle wheel, causing the device to travel too far from the launch point, but also 95 percent above ground with solar panels. When accelerated by a drone, they can cover a distance of about 100 meters before settling down.

Once they land, they light up using RF backscatter to reflect their signals off their environment and send them back to each other, creating an ad hoc network that a recorder can assemble.

Surprisingly, in terms of mobility, it does not come close to the light dandelion seed, which weighs a milligram and can travel for miles. But nature has had centuries to perfect its designs while the UW team is just getting started. The second challenge, of course, is that real seeds will eventually either turn into dandelions or rot altogether – and thousands of censers will remain until they are torn off or broken into pieces. The team said they are working on it, although the field of biodegradable electronics is still young.

If they can pinpoint the angle of e-waste (and possibly the animals that eat it), it could be of great help to anyone who wants to keep a close eye on endangered ecosystems.

“This is just the first step, which is why it’s so interesting. Now we have many other directions,” said lead author Vikram Iyer. An article describing their work appeared today in the journal Nature.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.