These Tiny Airborne Sensors Float in the Wind Like Dandelion Seeds

University of Washington's battery-free sensors can travel up to 100 meters and use small solar panels to power the onboard electronics.

Cabe Atwell
4 months agoSensors / Robotics
The devices can carry up to four sensors and run on solar power. (📷: Mark Stone/University of Washington)

Sensors are used to monitor environmental conditions across large land areas to get a read on changing conditions, such as temperatures, humidity, precipitation and more. One of the drawbacks of using conventional sensors is their deployment, which is typically done by hand, costing both time and money. Scientists from the University of Washington have developed a novel solution to create sensor arrays over large swaths of land inspired by dandelions, specifically how they disperse seeds using the wind.

The researchers designed their tiny sensor-carrying device using a unique pinwheel shape that allows for minimal terminal velocity so the sensors can be distributed over a wide area when deployed from a drone. The system weighs around 30x as heavy as a dandelion seed but can still travel up to 100 yards from its dispersal point and are designed to land face-up, which happens 95% of the time. Once the sensors land, they can then power their payload (up to four sensors) using solar panels and transmit data up to 60 meters away.

Considering the system uses solar power to drive the sensors, the system becomes inactive at night and requires a bit more energy to power in the morning, which is handled by an onboard capacitor that can store enough energy to get the job done. Data is transmitted using a backscattering technique that sends information by reflecting transmitted signals, saving on weight so the sensors can travel farther. Finding how far they can travel was done using drop tests from different heights by hand and via drone. The scientists noted that slightly varying the shape of each platform would disperse the sensors somewhat even over a wide area, thus reducing the time it would take to deploy them by hand. The team is currently looking at ways to make the system biodegradable, so the environment isn’t littered with electronics.

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