Inspired by how dandelions use the wind to distribute their seeds, a University of Washington team — including UW Biology Professor Tom Daniel — has developed a tiny sensor-carrying device that can be blown by the wind as it tumbles toward the ground. The story is in UW News:
Wireless sensors can monitor how temperature, humidity or other environmental conditions vary across large swaths of land, such as farms or forests.
These tools could provide unique insights for a variety of applications, including digital agriculture and monitoring climate change. One problem, however, is that it is currently time-consuming and expensive to physically place hundreds of sensors across a large area.
Inspired by how dandelions use the wind to distribute their seeds, a University of Washington team has developed a tiny sensor-carrying device that can be blown by the wind as it tumbles toward the ground. This system is about 30 times as heavy as a 1 milligram dandelion seed but can still travel up to 100 meters in a moderate breeze, about the length of a football field, from where it was released by a drone. Once on the ground, the device, which can hold at least four sensors, uses solar panels to power its onboard electronics and can share sensor data up to 60 meters away.
The team published these results March 16 in Nature.
To measure how far the devices would travel in the wind, the researchers dropped them from different heights, either by hand or by drone on campus. One trick to spread out the devices from a single drop point, the researchers said, is to vary their shapes slightly so they are carried by the breeze differently.
“This is mimicking biology, where variation is actually a feature, rather than a bug,” said co-author Thomas Daniel, a UW professor of biology. “Plants can’t guarantee that where they grew up this year is going to be good next year, so they have some seeds that can travel farther away to hedge their bets.”