These 3D-printed Wi-Fi enabled objects do not require power

Ceria Alfonso
Diciembre 7, 2017

Researchers from that university have announced the creation of the first 3D printed plastic objects and sensors able to collect useful data and communicate with other WiFi devices on their own.

The team have made their CAD models available to the public, so that you just need to get your hands on (commercially available) plastics in order to have the items at home. "But the big challenge is how do you communicate wirelessly with WiFi using only plastic?"

In order to do this, the team used "backscatter techniques" that allow devices to exchange information that allow devices to exchange information via an antenna. Gears and springs in the 3D printed object are triggered by actions like pushing a button or moving a slider, and these mechanical changes trigger a conductive switch to intermittently connect or disconnect with the antenna, changing its reflective state in the process. It typically relies on electronic components to reflect or absorb radio signals from a Wi-Fi router.

Taken as a whole, the researchers say their range of 3D printed objects, sensors, and controls can be combined to form an ecosystem of "talking objects".

These 3D-printed Wi-Fi enabled objects do not require power
These 3D-printed Wi-Fi enabled objects do not require power

Vikram Iyer, Justin Chan, and Shyamnath Gollakota from UW figured out a way to 3D-print plastic objects with wireless capabilities baked right in - no power source or electronics necessary. Information is encoded by the presence or absence of the tooth on a gear.

The researchers 3D printed several different tools that could sense and send information successfully to other connected devices - a wind meter, a water flow meter and a scale. The pattern and width of the gear teeth control how long the conductive switch is in contact with the antenna, which creates patterns of signals that can be picked up and decoded by a WiFi receiver.

"As you pour detergent out of a detergent bottle, for instance, the speed at which the gears are turning tells you how much soap is flowing out". A receiver can then monitor the bottle's level and send a message to a smartphone app when it falls below a certain level. They also 3D printed a test tube holder that could help manage inventory or measure the amount of liquid in each test tube, as well as a series of buttons, knobs and sliders that can be customized to communicate with other smart objects.

And lastly, the team also created a method for 3-D printing of iron in distinct patterns to invisibly encode static information in 3-D printed objects.

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