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Battery not required: Ant-sized radios for Internet of Things

15 Sep 2014  | Tom Abate

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"In the past when people thought about miniaturizing radios, they thought about it in terms of shrinking the size of the components," he said. But Arbabian's approach to dramatically reducing size and cost was different. Everything hinged on squeezing all the electronics found in, say, the typical Bluetooth device down into a single, ant-sized silicon chip.

This approach to miniaturisation would have another benefit – dramatically reducing power consumption, because a single chip draws so much less power than conventional radios. In fact, if Arbabian's radio chip needed a battery – which it does not – a single AAA contains enough power to run it for more than a century.

Arbabian's team also had to improve basic circuit and electronic design to create a small antenna that is about one-tenth the size of a Wi-Fi antenna, and operate at the incredibly fast rate of 24 billion cycles per second.

In the end, Arbabian managed to squeezed in all the necessary components on one chip: a receiving antenna that also scavenges energy from incoming electromagnetic waves; a transmitting antenna to broadcast replies and relay signals over short distances; and a central processor to interpret and execute instructions. No external components or power are needed.

Based on his designs, the French semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics fabricated 100 of these radios-on-a-chip. Arbabian has used these prototypes to prove that the devices work; they can receive signals, harvest energy from incoming radio signals and carry out commands and relay instructions.

Amin Arbabian, assistant professor of electrical engineering, talks about the ant-sized radio.

Now Arbabian envisions networks of these radio chips deployed every metre or so throughout a house (they would have to be set close to one another because high-frequency signals don't travel far). He thinks this technology can provide the web of connectivity and control between the global Internet and smart household devices.

"Cheap, tiny, self-powered radio controllers are an essential requirement for the Internet of Things," said Arbabian, who has created a web page to share some ideas on what he calls battery-less radios.

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