UW researchers develop tiny sensors that can be dropped from moths, land safely and collect data

The University of Washington sensor system can ride on the back of an insect, such as this Manduca sexta moth. (University of Washington Photo / Mark Stone)

The same University of Washington team that brought us the beetle cam is now taking flight with moths, developing tiny sensors that can hitch a ride and be dropped into remote areas to collect data.

The sensors weigh just 98 milligrams, or one tenth the weight of a jellybean, and can be attached to a small drone or insect. When a researcher sends a Bluetooth command, the sensor is released and can fall to the ground from as high as 72 feet without breaking. It can then collect data such as temperature or humidity for almost three years, according to a report by UW News on Thursday.

Shyam Gollakota, a UW associate professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, said his team of students was inspired by the way the military drops food and essential supplies from helicopters in disaster zones.

“This is the first time anyone has shown that sensors can be released from tiny drones or insects such as moths, which can traverse through narrow spaces better than any drone and sustain much longer flights,” Gollakota said.

The research was presented at MobiCom 2020 on Sept. 24.

The sensor is held on the drone or insect using a magnetic pin surrounded by a thin coil of wire, and it’s released when a wireless command is sent, creating a current through the coil to generate a magnetic field. The magnetic field makes the magnetic pin pop out of place and the sensor drops.

Design and weight factor into how the sensor falls to the ground without being damaged. The battery, the heaviest component, is placed in one corner and as the sensor falls it begins rotating around that corner, generating additional drag and slowing the descent. The low overall weight of the device keeps maximum speed of descent at around 11 mph.

Researchers envision creating a sensor network in an area, using drones or insects to scatter sensors across a forest or farm that they want to monitor, the UW said.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation. Vikram Iyer, a doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering; Maruchi Kim, a doctoral student in the Allen School; Shirley Xue, a doctoral student in the Allen School; and Anran Wang, a doctoral student in the Allen School, are co-authors on the paper.

Iyer, a former GeekWire Geek of the Week, has been using small insects to tackle big wireless problems and was recently recognized as one of the world’s most innovative young researchers.

Source Article