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Stanford's ant-sized radios could connect the world

Sharon Gaudin | Sept. 15, 2014
Scientists at Stanford University have built ant-sized radios that could one day help track patients' temperatures, turn on coffee makers in the morning and prevent forgery.

Scientists at Stanford University have built ant-sized radios that could one day help track patients' temperatures, turn on coffee makers in the morning and prevent forgery.

A Stanford engineering team has built a radio, equipped with sensors, computational units and antennas one-tenth the size of Wi-Fi antennas, that is able to gain all the power it needs from the same electromagnetic waves that carry signals to its receiving antenna. No batteries are required.

These radios, which are designed to compute, execute and relay commands, could be the key to linking gadgets together in the increasingly popular idea of the Internet of Things.

Today's radios generally are the size of a quarter, according to Amin Arbabian, assistant professor of electrical engineering at Stanford and a researcher on the radio project. These new radios are much smaller. They're 3.7 x 1.2 millimeters.

That's the size of an ant.

Radios that small could be added to everything from $100 bills to medical gauze, Band-Aids and home appliances. At just pennies per radio, that means a myriad of products could easily and cheaply become part of a linked network.

"This could be very important," Arbabian told Computerworld. "When you think about the Internet of Things, you're talking about needing a thousand radios per person. That counts all the radios and devices you'd need around you in your home and office environments. With 300 million people in the U.S., we'd have 300 billion radios."

A Bluetooth-type radio works fine for smartphones but is too big and expensive to connect most of the objects in users' lives.

"We needed the cost and size to go down, and you need scale," said Arbabian, who began working on the project in 2011. "Do you want to put something the size of a Bluetooth radio on a Band-Aid? It's too big. It costs a lot. The technology we have today for radios doesn't meet any of these requirements."

He explained that a tiny radio with a temperature sensor could be put on a bandage or piece of adhesive that's applied to every patient that enters a hospital. The radio and its sensor would enable the medical staff to continuously track every patient's temperature, a key health indicator, effortlessly and cheaply.

Sensors also could be used to measure air quality, to track medications from the manufacturer to the end user and to even keep track of tools and supplies in an operating room. For instance, Arbabian noted that a radio, encased in bio-safe material, could be attached to gauze or medical tools. With them, everything in an operating room could be tracked to ensure that nothing is left inside the patient at the end of surgery.

 

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