A major obstacle to building efficient robotic devices, especially small ones, is fitting them out with the electronics – and the requisite power source – they need to communicate with other gadgets or to a home base.
Now they can go circuit-free. Engineers at the University of Washington have devised a way to let machines that aren’t electronic communicate wirelessly anyway.
The engineers built antennas and little gears into the devices. The gears have teeth set at irregular distances apart. As the gears turn, they move the antennas to touch bits of metal inside or outside the device. That changes the way the antennas reflect back signals from a nearby router. A particular reflection will tell a computer that a robot has crawled a certain distance, for example, or that a robotic limb has flexed to a specific degree.
Nanotechnology already is good at making microscopic gears; antennas can be nothing more than a few atoms of metal. This clever invention opens a new path to cheap robotics and nanodevices, speeding their widespread future commercialization.