The Internet of Non-Electronic Things

The bill of materials for even the simplest IoT project is likely to include some kind of microcontroller with some kind of wireless module. But could the BOM for a useful IoT thing someday list only a single item? Quite possibly, if these electronics-less 3D-printed IoT devices are any indication.

While you may think that the silicon-free devices described in a paper (PDF link) by University of Washington students [Vikram Iyer] and [Justin Chan] stand no chance of getting online, they’ve actually built an array of useful IoT things, including an Amazon Dash-like button. The key to their system is backscatter, which modulates incident RF waves to encode data for a receiver. Some of the backscatter systems we’ve featured include a soil sensor network using commercial FM broadcasts and hybrid printable sensors using LoRa as the carrier. But both of these require at least some electronics, and consequently some kind of power. [Chan] and [Iyer] used conductive filament to print antennas that can be mechanically switched by rotating gears. Data can be encoded by the speed of the alternating reflection and absorption of the incident WiFi signals, or cams can encode data for buttons and similar widgets.

It’s a surprisingly simple system, and although the devices shown might need some mechanical tune-ups, the proof of concept has a lot of potential. Flowmeters, level sensors, alarm systems — what kind of sensors would you print? Sound off below.

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Hybrid Technique Breaks Backscatter Distance Barrier

Low cost, long range, or low power — when it comes to wireless connectivity, historically you’ve only been able to pick two. But a group at the University of Washington appears to have made a breakthrough in backscatter communications that allows reliable data transfer over 2.8 kilometers using only microwatts, and for pennies apiece.

For those unfamiliar with backscatter, it’s a very cool technology that modulates data onto RF energy incident from some local source, like an FM broadcast station or nearby WiFi router. Since the backscatter device doesn’t need to power local oscillators or other hungry components, it has negligible power requirements. Traditionally, though, that has given backscatter devices a range of a few hundred meters at most. The UW team, led by [Shyamnath Gollokota], describe a new backscatter technique (PDF link) that blows away previous records. By combining the spread-spectrum modulation of LoRa with the switched attenuation of incident RF energy that forms the basis for backscatter, the UW team was able to cover 2800 meters for under 10 microwatts. What’s more, with printable batteries or cheap button cells, the backscatter tags can be made for as little as 10 cents a piece. The possibilities for cheap agricultural sensors, ultracompact and low power wearable sensors, or even just deploy-and-forget IoT devices are endless.

We’ve covered backscatter before, both for agricultural uses and for pirate broadcasting stations. Backscatter also has also seen more cloak and dagger duty.

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At Last, (Almost) A Cellphone With No Batteries!

If you are tired of constantly having to worry about the state of the battery in your mobile phone, then maybe help is at hand courtesy of the University of Washington. They are reporting the first-ever battery free cell phone, able to make calls by scavenging ambient power. An impressive achievement, and one about which we’d all like to know more.

On closer examination though, the story is revealed as not quite what it claims to be. It’s still a very impressive achievement, but instead of a cell phone with which you can make calls through the public cell network, it’s more of a remote handset for a custom base station through which it can place Skype calls. Sadly the paper itself is hidden behind a journal publisher’s paywall, so we’re left to poke underneath the research group’s slightly baffling decision to use the word “Cellphone” for something that plainly isn’t, and the university PR department’s dumbing-down for the masses. Aren’t peer reviewers supposed to catch misleading descriptions as well as dodgy science?

In radio terms, it’s an analog AM two-way radio that uses a backscatter transmission technique of applying the modulation as switching to an absorbing antenna tuned to the RF source whose ambient energy is being utilized. This modulates the ambient field within the range of the device, and resulting modulated field can be received and demodulated like any other radio signal. It’s a simplex device, in that you can’t listen and talk at the same time. Other ambient power used by the circuitry is harvested by rectifying received RF and through capturing ambient light on a set of photodiodes. There is a short video explaining the system, which we’ve placed below the break.

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Backscatter Your Own FM Pirate Radio Station

If you live in a city, you’re constantly swimming in a thick soup of radio-frequency energy. FM radio stations put out hundreds of kilowatts each into the air. Students at the University of Washington, [Anran Wang] and [Vikram Iyer], asked themselves if they could harness this background radiation to transmit their own FM radio station, if only locally. The answer was an amazing yes.

The trailer video, embedded below, demos a couple of potential applications, but the paper (PDF) has more detail for the interested. Basically, they turn on and off an absorbing antenna at a frequency that’s picked so that it modulates a strong FM signal up to another adjacent channel. Frequency-modulating this backscatter carrier frequency adds audio (or data) to the product station.

One of the cooler tricks that they pull off with this system is to inject a second (stereo) channel into a mono FM station. Since FM radio is broadcast as a mono signal, with a left-minus-right signal sent alongside, they can make a two-channel stereo station by recreating the stereo pilot carrier and then adding in their own difference channel. Pretty slick. Of course, they could send data using this technique as well.

Why do this? A small radio station using backscatter doesn’t have to spend its power budget on the carrier. Instead, the device can operate on microwatts. Granted, it’s only for a few feet in any given direction, but the station broadcasts to existing FM radios, rather than requiring the purchase of an RFID reader or similar device. It’s a great hack that piggybacks on existing infrastructure in two ways. If this seems vaguely familiar, here’s a similar idea out of the very same lab that’s pulling off essentially the same trick indoors with WiFi signals.

So who’s up for local reflected pirate radio stations?

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Using Backscatter Radio for a Soil Sensor Network

With almost 8 billion souls to feed and a changing climate to deal with, there’s never been a better time to field a meaningful “Internet of Agriculture.” But the expansive fields that make industrial-scale agriculture feasible work against the deployment of sensors and actuators because of a lack of infrastructure to power and connect everything. So a low-power radio network for soil moisture sensors is certainly a welcome development.

We can think of a lot of ways that sensors could be powered in the field. Solar comes to mind, since good exposure to the sun is usually a prerequisite for any cropland. But in practice, solar has issues, the prime one being that the plants need the sun more, and will quickly shade out low-profile soil-based sensors.

That’s why [Spyros Daskalakis] eschewed PV for his capacitive soil moisture sensors in favor of a backscatter technique very similar to that used in both the Great Seal Bug and mundane RFID tags alike. The soil sensor switches half of an etched PCB bowtie antenna in and out of a circuit at a frequency proportional to soil moisture. A carrier signal from a separate transmitter is reflected off the alternately loaded and unloaded antenna, picking up subcarriers with a frequency proportional to soil moisture. [Spyros] explains more about the sensor design and his technique for handling multiple sensors in his paper.

We really like the principles [Spyros] leveraged here, and the simplicity of the system. We can’t help but wonder what sort of synergies there are between this project and the 2015 Hackaday Prize-winning Vinduino project.

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Quickly Prototyping X-ray Backscatter Machines

Ben Krasnow is one of those people no one has a bad opinion of. He’s part of the team at Verily (Google’s Life Science Alphabit), where he’s busy curing cancer. He co-founded Valve’s hardware division and his YouTube channel, Applied Science, is an exploration of building very high-tech tools very quickly and on a very low budget. Ben has built everything from an electron microscope to a liquid nitrogen generator to a robot that makes individual chocolate chip cookies with ingredients in different proportions. He’s curing cancer and finding the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe.

The focus of Ben’s talk at this year’s Hackaday SuperConference is building low-cost scientific apparatus quickly. From Applied Science, Ben has cemented his position as a wizard who can find anything either on eBay or at a surplus store. The real trick, Ben tells us, is getting his boss and accounting to understand this rapid prototyping mindset.

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Retrotechtacular: Cover Your CONUS with OTH-B Radar

If you’re a ham, you already know that the ionosphere is a great backboard for bouncing HF signals around the globe.  It’s also useful for over-the-horizon backscatter (OTH-B (PDF)) radar applications, which the United States Air Force’s Rome Laboratory experimented with during the Cold War.

During the trial program, transmit and receive sites were set up ninety miles apart inside the great state of Maine. The 1/2 mile-long transmit antenna was made up of four arrays of twelve dipole elements and operated at 1MW. An antenna back screen and ground screen further expanded the signal’s range. Transmission was most often controlled by computers within the transmit building, but it could also be manually powered and adjusted.

The receive site had 50-ft. antenna elements stretching 3900 feet, and a gigantic ground screen covering nearly eight acres. Signals transmitted from the dipole array at the transmit site bounced off of the ionosphere and down to the receive site. Because of step-scanning, the system was capable of covering a 180° arc. OTH-B radar systems across the continental United States were relegated to storage at the end of the Cold War, but could be brought back into service given enough time and money.

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