Battery-free IoT sensor that lasts for years could be sent to distant planets

23 Aug 2019

The MIT battery-free sensor could be used in oceans on distant planets. Image: MIT

This week in future tech, vast networks of underwater IoT sensors that don’t need batteries could be sent to distant planets.

A team of MIT researchers has unveiled a battery-free underwater sensor that can transmit data for extremely long periods of time. According to MIT News, rolling out a network of these sensors could be used to monitor sea temperatures, study climate change or even be used for underwater internet-of-things (IoT) networks on distant planets.

Explaining the technology, the team said a transmitter sends acoustic waves through water towards a piezoelectric sensor that has stored data. Each wave that hits the sensor creates electrical charge that is then stored. While early days, the sensor was able to transmit 3Kbps of data from two sensors simultaneously at a distance of 10 metres between sensor and receiver.

Speaking of its interplanetary uses, co-author of the study, Fadel Adib, said: “How can you put a sensor under the water on Titan that lasts for long periods of time in a place that’s difficult to get energy?

“Sensors that communicate without a battery open up possibilities for sensing in extreme environments.”

The team now wants to see if the system can work at farther distances and communicate with more sensors simultaneously. Furthermore, it’s hoped that the system will eventually be able to transmit sound and low-resolution images.

Scratch-proof smartphones possible with ceramic welding technology

A new ceramic welding technology developed by a team of engineers at the University of California San Diego and the University of California, Riverside, could lead to scratch-proof phone screens and metal-free pacemakers.

Writing in Science, the team said it uses an ultra-fast pulsed laser to melt ceramic materials along the interface and fuse them together. Working in ambient power at less than 50W, the laser can create welded ceramics that are biocompatible, extremely hard and shatter-resistant, making them ideal for biomedical implants and protective casings for electronics.

According to senior author Javier E Garay: “Right now there is no way to encase or seal electronic components inside ceramics because you would have to put the entire assembly in a furnace, which would end up burning the electronics.”

By optimising the laser parameters – such as exposure time and duration of pulses – and the transparency of the ceramic material, welding at room temperature was achieved.

“By focusing the energy right where we want it, we avoid setting up temperature gradients throughout the ceramic, so we can encase temperature-sensitive materials without damaging them,” Garay said.

Russia launches human-sized robot to ISS

A helpful robot named FEDOR (Final Experimental Demonstration Object Research) was launched aboard a Soyuz rocket yesterday (22 August) from Russia’s Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, with the International Space Station (ISS) as its final destination.

According to the BBC, the bipedal, human-sized robot will form part of a test for a new emergency rescue system. Weighing 160kg, FEDOR will be tasked with learning a number of new skills including “connecting and disconnecting electric cables” and “using standard items from a screwdriver and a spanner to a fire extinguisher”, according to the Russian space agency’s director for prospective programmes and science, Alexander Bloshenko.

Before its 10-day mission is up, it’s hoped that the robot could go on to do more dangerous tasks such as spacewalks.

Flying taxi start-up reveals its first commercial vehicle

German start-up Volocopter has revealed the design of its latest air taxi, the VoloCity. In an announcement, the company revealed it can hold two passengers and hand luggage, with increased flight efficiency through aerodynamically shaped rotor beams.

Now in the fourth generation of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, Volocopter said the VoloCity will have a range of approximately 35km and a top speed of about 112kph.

“It is a result of all insights we have gathered from our extensive testing programmes over the past years,” said Florian Reuter, CEO of Volocopter. “With the VoloCity we will open the first commercial routes and bring urban air mobility to life.”

The company said its plans are to develop the ecosystem and infrastructure necessary to bring the eVTOL to cities, such as landing pads and air traffic management systems.

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Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic