Innovation That Matters

The battery-free device uses solar panels (black rectangles shown here) to power its onboard electronics | Photo source Mark Stone/University of Washington

Researchers develop dandelion-like data collection devices that float in the wind

Science

The tiny sensor-carrying devices, powered by solar energy, can send data over 60 metres after landing

Spotted: Wireless sensor technology is used to measure everything from temperature to humidity over wide areas of land – such as farms or forests. But to date, most sensors have been powered by batteries, which can be expensive. Moreover, until now, it has been necessary to physically place sensors in the field – a time-consuming and costly task.

Now, a team from the University of Washington has developed a new type of sensor-carrying device that doesn’t require a battery at all – being powered instead by solar panels. Designed to be smaller, lighter, more efficient, and lower maintenance than similar systems, each device can carry at least four sensors.

However, the real breakthrough comes in how the devices are distributed. Like dandelion seeds, the devices are designed to be blown by the wind as they tumble towards the ground – travelling up to 100 metres in a light breeze when released by a drone. They can then send sensor data over 60 metres after landing. Distributing sensors by wind in this way saves significant amounts of time, effort, and expense.

“Our prototype suggests that you could use a drone to release thousands of these devices in a single drop,” explains Shyam Gollakota, a senior author of the study testing the devices. “They’ll all be carried by the wind a little differently, and basically you can create a 1,000-device network with this one drop.”

Potential applications for the devices include digital agriculture and climate change monitoring.

One downside to the system is the negative effects of having electronics scattered over the landscape. This is why the next step for the researchers is to explore how these devices could be made more biodegradable.

Digital agriculture and forestry is on the rise, and Springwise has spotted digital ‘smart forest’ technology, un-manned crop monitoring drones, and satellite imagery that helps farmers use fewer chemicals.

Written By: Katrina Lane

Email: gshyam@cs.washington.edu

Website: uw.edu

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