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Scientists found a way to create simple batteryless devices for the Internet of Things

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Posted November 14, 2018

There are certain electronic components that do not need a battery. They are various sensors that do not need their own source of energy. Now researchers at the University of Waterloo have taken a huge step towards making effective IoT devices that do not use batteries or require charging. This could be a breakthrough lowering the maintenance costs as well as expanding possibilities of these devices.

RFIT tags are ubiquitous – they are use ranges from identification cards to cattle eartags. Image credit: Alicia Nijdam via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Internet of Things devices already exist. They can monitor certain parameters of the environment, such as the temperature, lighting, noise and pollution levels and so on. They do need some source of energy, which in many cases ends up being a battery. They need charging, which increases the amount of needed maintenance.

Time costs money and charging is just a hassle, which is why batteryless IoT devices are such a desirable option. Now scientists have found a way to use radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to sense the environment.

Postdoctoral fellow Ju Wang (centre) and Professor Omid Abari demonstrate the wireless keypad clicker they invented by hacking RFID sensors with tiny push-button switches.

Postdoctoral fellow Ju Wang (centre) and Professor Omid Abari demonstrate the wireless keypad clicker they invented by hacking RFID sensors with tiny push-button switches.

RFID tags are found in various objects. They are just some squiggly ribbons of metal with electronic chips. Hacking RFID tags to make them perform this new task is actually surprisingly easy. Scientists just cut out a section of the antenna and attached a sensor to complete the circuit.

Usually RFID tags provide only location and identification, but with a new sensor they are able to give more information about the environment. For example, inserting a tiny phototransistor into the circuit gives RFID tag eyes – exposed to light phototransistor changes properties of the antenna and the reader can detect those changes. This allows for interpretation, which provides information about light levels around the sensor. But other devices can be added to RFID tags as well.

An RFID tag is modified by cutting out a small part its antenna (silver ribbon) and placing a small push-button switch on it. If several modified tags are mounted on a surface, they can act as a wireless keypad.

An RFID tag is modified by cutting out a small part its antenna (silver ribbon) and placing a small push-button switch on it. If several modified tags are mounted on a surface, they can act as a wireless keypad.

Scientists say that the simplest hack is adding a switch, which makes RFID tag behave like a keypad – it starts responding to touch, which could be useful in monitoring activity of various industrial machines. Professor Omid Abari, one of the scientists behind this project, said: “We see this as a good example of a complete software-hardware system for IoT devices. We hacked simple hardware — we cut RFID tags and placed a sensor on them. Then we designed new algorithms and combined the software and hardware to enable new applications and capabilities”.

The best thing about it is just how easy it is to do. RFIT tags are ubiquitous, they are cheap and very simple, which makes these IoT devices a viable option for a wide variety of applications.

Source:  University of Waterloo

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