UW students introduce Printed Wi-Fi – plastic, 3D printed, smart sensing

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Vikram Iyer, Shyam Gollakota and Justin Chan at
the University of Washington (UW) have developed a unique
concept that could help transform the way we shop, take stock,
and even control TV sets. By using
3D printed sensors
, the team are creating smarter plastic
objects that are capable of wireless communication without the
use of batteries, or electronics.

Titled Printed
Wi-Fi
, the concept has been proven in a recent
paper
co-authored by Iyer, Gollakota and Chan. In the
article, the team demo a range of plastic objects that can be
used to control computer screens, relay inventory, and monitor
the amount of detergent left in a bottle – all made on a
desktop 3D printer, using commercially available filament.

3D printing the unseen

Speaking in an
article for UW News
 Iyer, an electrical
engineering doctoral student at the university and co-author of
the study, explains, “Our goal was to create something that
just comes out of your 3D printer at home and can send useful
information to other devices,”

“…the big challenge is how do you communicate wirelessly with
Wi-Fi using only plastic? That’s something that no one has
been able to do before.”

Plastic objects created by the team are made into active Wi-Fi
antennas by 3D printing a conductive strip onto the body, made
from a copper-containing plastic filament. The objects are then
capable of reflecting signals from a existing Wi-Fi router, to
make data which is readable on a mobile phone or other Wi-Fi
receiving device.

Diagram explaining UW's Printed Wi-Fi. Image via UW Printed Wi-FiDiagram explaining
UW’s Printed Wi-Fi. Image via UW Printed Wi-Fi

Backscatter physics

UW’s objects work using backscatter physics – the reflection of
waves responsible for radar systems and unusual effects, like
floating orbs, in photography. Instead of generating and
transmitting its own data, a Wi-Fi active object reflects
signals emitted by a router as binary code.

The 1s and 0s of this code are determined by a “hit” or a
“miss” on an object’s 3D printed antenna. Reflection of this
code is itself controlled by a plastic 3D printed mechanism,
that creates interruption in the wave’s path by opening and
closing.

3D printed gear and antenna system used to wirelessly
control computer scrolling and other features demonstrated in
the UW study. Clip via Justin
Chan
 on YouTube

Move over Alexa

In a proof of concept use case, Printed Wi-Fi technology has
been used make an attachment for bottles of detergent, like
Tide. The device can be used in-conjunction with a mobile phone
to automatically order a new product when levels run low,
cutting out the middleman for delivery of household goods.

UW's 3D printed detergent sensor. Photo by Mark Stone/University of WashingtonUW’s 3D printed
detergent sensor. Photo by Mark Stone/University of Washington

“As you pour detergent out of a Tide bottle, for instance,”
explains Gollakota, associate professor in the Paul
G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and
senior author of the paper, “the speed at which the gears are
turning tells you how much soap is flowing out,”

“The interaction between the 3D printed switch and antenna
wirelessly transmits that data. Then the receiver can track
how much detergent you have left and when it dips below a
certain amount, it can automatically send a message to your
Amazon app to order more.”

Sensors are getting smarter

Using a similar principle as the UW study, a team at Dartmouth
College in New Hampshire invented
a device to redirect and control WiFi signals
emitted from
a wireless router. 3D printed sensors are also undergoing
experiments for their potential applications in
power generation industries
and
the development of wearables. 

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Featured image shows UW’s Printed Wi-Fi mechanism.
Photo by Mark Stone/University of Washington

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