WiFi Without Electronics Thanks to 3D Printing

The days of needing an electrical supply in order to get a WiFi signal may well be on their way out, thanks to a team of researchers at the University of Washington. Using 3D-printed objects made of commercially-available plastics and WiFi receivers, the team was able to demonstrate transmission of WiFi signals between them, free of the use of batteries or any other electronics.

The team’s goal was to produce a design that could be downloaded by anyone who has a 3D printer which, once printed, would be able to send useful information to other devices. To date, wireless communication involving only the use of plastic, had been unheard of. Nobody had been able to achieve such a breakthrough, and so the team of researchers at the University of Washington faced a considerable challenge.

It was recognized that certain objects, such as 3D switches, gears and springs, possessed the inherent qualities required to render changes in motion into information which could be transmitted via antennae. The team set about creating an anemometer – a device which is typically used to measure the speed of wind – and attached it to a gear. Once put into motion, the teeth of the gear make contact with an antenna in the anemometer. The antenna reflects WiFi signals in the immediate vicinity, which are then decoded by a WiFi receiver. As the speed of the wind increases, the gear rotates faster, increasing the speed of transmission. Far from having to rely solely on the wind for the required energy input, this type of technology can be suited to numerous environments. The team also developed a flowmeter, designed to measure the speed of water, during its research.

Further developments of the technology include a slider, a button and a knob, which can be used to communicate with other smart devices, based on the same principles. The team went on to develop two ‘smart objects’ to highlight the broad applicability of the new technology. One of these objects was a bottle of detergent with a flowmeter feature, which could place an order for a replacement bottle once the level of detergent reached a sufficiently low level. Following on from this, the researchers developed a test tube holder that could be used to take measurements about the contents of each tube.

Perhaps most impressively, the team demonstrated a method of printing iron into 3D designs, in a number of different patterns. Once embedded in the object, the metal could be used to store and communicate, via an external magnetometer, for example, certain information inherent to the object, such as its functions or manufacturer, or a framework for communication with robotic operators. As many smartphones are fitted with magnetometers, the range of practical applications, from retail to government and industry, is extremely wide.

The 3D models created by the team at the University of Washington were presented at an exhibition of the Association for Computer Machinery, and will soon be made available to the public, in order for people to make use of them in their own homes.



Andrew Maxwell

Andrew is a former journalist who now works as a freelance writer specializing in tech and gadgets. He currently resides in Thailand.

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