Ant-sized radios could help connect trillions of devices to the Internet of Things

Researchers have created prototype ant-sized radio-on-a-chip devices powered by ambient radio waves (Photo: Amin Arbabian/Stanford University)

A team of researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, has created prototype radio-on-a-chip communications devices that are powered by ambient radio waves. Comprising receiving and transmitting antennas and a central processor, the completely self-contained ant-sized devices are very cheap to manufacture, don't require batteries to run and could give the "Internet of Things" (IoT) a serious kick start.

The wireless chip is designed to address the growing demand for smart sensors and remote control of devices by combining wireless communication, inbuilt logic control, and remote sensing. As micro-miniature intelligent radio devices like these can receive, process and transmit data, the researchers believe their tiny chips may serve as the missing link required to connect a vast array of gadgets to the internet and therefore each other and make the IoT a reality.

"The next exponential growth in connectivity will be connecting objects together and giving us remote control through the Web," said Amin Arbabian, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, and the principal designer of the new devices. "We're ultimately talking about connecting trillions of devices."

From a technical viewpoint, the prototype is a self-contained transceiver module with an in-built central processor designed to interpret and execute instructions, powered totally from the energy scavenged from ambient radio waves. Highlighting it's low energy consumption, the researchers say that a AAA battery - if it were hooked up – would keep it running for more than a century.

Incorporating VLSI (Very Large Scale Integration) single-chip architecture, the unit operates at 24 GHz/60 GHz transmit and receive, and requires no external connections or power supply to operate. Incorporating both receiving and transmitting antennas in the one module, the current prototype devices have a communication range of approximately 50 cm (20 in), with Arbabian envisioning networks of such devices being deployed throughout a house at regular intervals to provide a web of interconnectivity and control between smart devices in the home and the internet.

Whilst 50 cm may not seem like a long range (and these prototypes aren't the first devices to be powered by radio waves), it is the incredibly low price predicted to make these units as complete, on-chip, high-functioning transceivers that is the most appealing aspect.

This low price of just a few cents per chip would provide the ability to affordably generate vast numbers of these devices, with interconnected legions of these modules able to easily communicate between local units, between themselves and – eventually – to long-distance transceivers for complete control of a myriad different pieces of equipment all around the world.

"How do you put a bi-directional wireless control system on every lightbulb?" said Arbabian. "By putting all the essential elements of a radio on a single chip that costs pennies to make."

One hundred prototypes of the radio-on-a-chip have been fabricated by French semiconductor manufacturer STMicroelectronics so far and Arbabian recently demonstrated the device at the VLSI Technology and Circuits Symposium in Hawaii. No announcement has been made regarding potential commercial availability.

The video below was produced by the team to explain their research.

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