Suramya's Blog : Welcome to my crazy life…

October 12, 2020

No Batteries or Electronics Required to power the Internet of Plastic Things

Filed under: Emerging Tech,Techie Stuff — Suramya @ 11:48 PM

One of the problems we face when trying to create devices that connect to each other or have built in intelligence is how do we power such devices? The trade-off has always been between portability and connectivity. Now, thanks to the efforts of Researchers at the University of Washington, we have a technique for three-dimensionally (3D) printing plastic objects that can communicate with Wifi devices without batteries or electronics. Building on top of previous work in which another research team managed to transmit their data by either reflecting (1) or not reflecting (0) a Wi-Fi router’s signals. However the problem was that they needed multiple electronic components to work, which is something that’s not always feasible. The team published their paper back in 2017 and have been hard at work enhancing their technology since then. Now after years of effort they have managed to map the Wi-Fi backscatter technology to 3D geometry and create 3D CAD Models that can be printed using standard 3D Printers. This drastically reduces the cost of implementing this technology and opens the field for 3D printed devices for any and all projects.

Printed Wi-Fi. We present the First 3D printed design that can transmit data to commercial RF receivers including Wi-Fi. Since 3D printing conventional radios would require analog oscillators running at gigahertz frequencies, our design instead leverages Wi-Fi backscatter, which is a recent advance in low-power wireless communication where a device communicates information by modulating its reflection of an incident Wi-Fi signal. The device can toggle an electronic switch to either absorb or reflect an ambient signal to convey a sequence of 0 and 1 bits. The challenge however is that existing Wi-Fi backscatter systems [Kellogg et al. 2016] require multiple electronic components including RF switches that can toggle between reflective and non-reflective states, digital logic that controls the switch to encode the appropriate data as well as a power source/harvester that powers all these electronic components. Our key contribution is to apply Wi-Fi backscatter to 3D geometry and create easy to print wireless devices using commodity 3D printers.

To achieve this, we create non-electronic and printable analogues for each of these electronic components using plastic filaments and integrate them into a single computational design. Specifically,To print the backscatter hardware, we leverage composite plastic Filament materials with conductive properties, such as plastic with copper and graphene fillings. We characterize the RF properties of these filaments and use them to design fully 3D printable antennas and RF backscatter switches (see §3).

* In lieu of digital logic electronics, we encode bits with 3D printed plastic gears. Specifically, ‘0’ and ‘1’ bits are encoded by the presence and absence of tooth on the gear respectively. To backscatter a se-
quence of bits, the gear teeth are configured to toggle the backscatter switch between reflective and non-reflective states.

* We leverage the mechanical nature of many sensors and widgets to power our backscatter design. We present computational designs that use push buttons to harvest energy from user interaction as well as a combination of circular plastic springs to store energy. Finally, we design 3D printable sensors that directly power the backscatter system, through their sensing operation.

The team basically has managed to leverage mechanical motion to power their devices. e.g. pushing a mechanical button will use the mechanical motion to provide power for it to transfer data. Another really interesting side effect of their research will be to drastically reduce the electronic waste generated because these devices will no longer require batteries to operate.

Currently they have managed to power a detergent bottle that signals when it’s empty and automatically order’s refills among other things. I can envision it being used in smart clothing in the near future to power the data transmission or powering mechanical dials & switches for digital systems that don’t need to be wired into the system. In fact there there are multiple such usecases which will benefit from this technology. Sky is the limit for this tech. In fact it might even be feasiable to use this in space missions where every gram of weight needs to be managed and removing the need for heavy batteries will have an immediate impact on cost.

I will definitely be keeping an eye out for future breakthroughs in this area.

Source: IEEE Spectrum: Here Comes the Internet of Plastic Things, No Batteries or Electronics Required

– Suramya

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