Breezy

Watch: These tiny sensors can float on the breeze like dandelion seeds

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Dandelions are stationary plants, but they’re able to spread their seeds far and wide by taking advantage of the wind.

Researchers are taking lessons from the flower to design portable sensors.

A miniature device that can ride on daily breezes was described March 16 in the journal Nature.

University of Washington

Mark Stone/University of Washington

The device is constructed of a thin polymer disc, cut into a shape that allows it to stay airborne for as long as possible. It houses several small electronic components in the center, including sensors.

Mark Stone/University of Washington

The researchers envision these devices being deployed in large groups to monitor environmental changes.

Temperature and humidity fluctuations, for example, could be tracked in remote areas where it’s difficult to manually set up sensors.

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The devices range from 10 to 50 millimeters in diameter and weigh about 30 milligrams. For comparison, a dandelion seed weighs just one milligram.

And they don’t require any batteries to keep them going — the devices run on sunlight thanks to small solar panels, and store extra energy in a capacitor.

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When dropped from a drone, the device (circled in red) can flutter for 100 meters before touching the ground.

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F. Frankel

This nature-inspired device isn’t the only recent miniature sensor.

Last year, another research team described a similar device called a “microflier” that took inspiration from falling maple leaves.

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The microfliers would be deployed for similar reasons, namely to monitor the environment.

They are also dissolvable in water.

Compared to the microfliers, the dandelion-inspired devices focus more on harvesting solar energy and communicating wirelessly over long distances to share information.

University of Washington

Mark Stone/University of Washington

Plus, the structure and inspiration for the devices are much different.

“By emulating dandelion seeds we also enable our device to always fall in an upright orientation with the solar cells facing upward,” explains Vikram Iyer, lead author of the new Nature study.

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Iyer tells Inverse that he thinks there will be more interest in building these types of devices in the future.

Creating a lightweight, portable device that can deploy sensors basically anywhere on Earth is an ongoing challenge.

“It’s exciting to see that others are exploring this space as well and I think there are lots of opportunities to combine innovations from both works to achieve new capabilities.”

Iyer tells Inverse.

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And in the future, this kind of work might inspire other types of micro electronics as well.

Iyer envisions wireless sensors small enough to attach to bees and beetles in order to study their behavior — and even make bots that looks like bugs.

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“If we can go a step further to integrate actuators with these wireless sensors, we can enable them to move around freely and build insect-scale robots.”

Vikram Iyer tells Inverse.