Researchers at Northwestern University is moving the goalposts on how small you can make a tiny flying object down to 0.5 mm, effectively creating flying microchips. Although “falling with style” is probably a more accurate description.
Like similar projects we featured before from the Singapore University of Technology and Design, these tiny gliders are inspired by the “helicopter seeds” produced by various tree species. They consist of a single shape memory polymer substrate, with circuitry consisting of silicon nanomembrane transistors and chromium/gold interconnects transferred onto it.
Looking at the research paper, it appears that the focus at this stage was mainly on the aerodynamics and manufacturing process, rather than creating functional circuitry. A larger “IoT Macroflyer” did include normal ICs, which charges a super capacitor from a set of photodiodes operating in the UV-A spectrum, which acts as a cumulative dosimeter. The results of which can be read via NFC after recovery.
As with other similar projects, the proposed use-cases include environmental monitoring and surveillance. Air-dropping a large quantity of these devices over the landscape would constitute a rather serious act of pollution, for which case the researchers have also created a biodegradable version. Although we regard these “airdropped sensor swarms” with a healthy amount of skepticism and trepidation, we suspect that they will probably be used at some point in the future. We just hope that those responsible would have considered all the possible consequences.
Sensor network projects often focus primarily on electronic design elements, such as architecture and wireless transmission methods for sensors and gateways. Equally important, however, are physical and practical design elements such as installation, usability, and maintainability. The SENSEation project by [Mario Frei] is a sensor network intended for use indoors in a variety of buildings, and it showcases the deep importance of physical design elements in order to create hardware that is easy to install, easy to maintain, and effective. The project logs have an excellent overview of past versions and an analysis of what worked well, and where they fell short.
One example is the power supply for the sensor nodes. Past designs used wall adapters to provide constant and reliable power, but there are practical considerations around doing so. Not only do power adapters mean each sensor requires some amount of cable management, but one never really knows what one will find when installing a node somewhere in a building; a power outlet may not be nearby, or it may not have any unoccupied sockets. [Mario] found that installations could take up to 45 minutes per node as a result of these issues. The solution was to move to battery power for the sensor nodes. With careful power management, a node can operate for almost a year before needing a recharge, and removing any cable management or power adapter meant that installation time dropped to an average of only seven minutes.
That’s just one example of the practical issues discovered in the deployment of a sensor network in a real-world situation, and the positive impact of some thoughtful design changes in response. The GitHub repository for SENSEation has all the details needed to reproduce the modular design, so check it out.
[Mile]’s PTPM Energy Scavenger takes the scavenging idea seriously and is designed to gather not only solar power but also energy from temperature differentials, vibrations, and magnetic induction. The idea is to make wireless sensor nodes that can be self-powered and require minimal maintenance. There’s more to the idea than simply doing away with batteries; if the devices are rugged and don’t need maintenance, they can be installed in locations that would otherwise be impractical or awkward. [Mile] says that goal is to reduce the most costly part of any supply chain: human labor.
The prototype is working well with solar energy and supercapacitors for energy storage, but [Mile] sees potential in harvesting other sources, such as piezoelectric energy by mounting the units to active machinery. With a selectable output voltage, optional battery for longer-term storage, and a reference design complete with enclosure, the PPTM Energy Scavenger aims to provide a robust power solution for wireless sensor platforms.
The SPINES (Self-Powered IoT Node for Environmental Sensing) Mote is a wireless IoT environmental sensor, but don’t let the neatly packed single PCB fool you into thinking it’s not hackable. [Macro Yau] specifically designed SPINES to be highly modular in order to make designing an energy harvesting sensor node an easier task. The way [Macro] sees it, there are two big hurdles to development: one is the energy harvesting itself, and the other is the software required to manage the use of every precious joule of that harvested energy.
[Macro] designed the single board SPINES Mote in a way that the energy harvesting portion can be used independently, and easily integrated into other designs. In addition, an Arduino library is being developed to make it easy for the power management to be done behind the scenes, allowing a developer to concentrate on the application itself. A solar-powered wireless sensor node is one thing, but helping people get their ideas up and running faster in the process is wonderful to see.