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Thursday, September 23, 2021

DARPA grants UC Davis researchers $1.8 million to innovate sensor technology

DEBPARNA PRATIHER / AGGIE
DEBPARNA PRATIHER / AGGIE

Team of professors, postdoctoral researchers develop ultra-low-powered sensors.

In October, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) granted $1.8 million to a team of professors and postdoctoral researchers led by UC Davis aerospace engineering professor David Horsley to develop ultra-low-powered sensors.

Horsley created a team of three engineering professors including himself, Rajeevan Amirtharajah and Xiaoguang Leo Liu, along with a post-doctoral engineering researcher Jeronimo Segovia-Fernandez.

DARPA initially proposed the idea to create this technology with the goal of developing an unattended sensor that can work for years without replacement, and only be powered by a small battery.

The sensors that this project will be developing are motion-sensing, much like the sensors that currently exist in smartphones and other smart devices.

“The Department of Defense has an unfilled need for persistent, event-driven sensing capabilities, where physical, electromagnetic and other sensors can remain dormant, with near zero-power consumption, until awakened by an external trigger or stimulus,” states the UC Davis engineering page.

The team believes that this technology can be useful in many applications once it is developed.

“Many everyday applications could leverage the technology developed by this research. For example, home security systems could directly use the same sensors,” Amirtharajah said. “The same technology can enable voice-activated devices in outdoor spaces or remote locations where electricity is not available. The technology could be used to monitor wildlife and help track their movements and populations.”

For the manufacturing portion of the project, the team is collaborating with InvenSense, a San Jose-based company that currently produces motion sensors commercially. Since DARPA does not provide manufacturing, this collaboration will allow the sensors to be quickly marketed to companies, such as Apple or Samsung, once they are developed.

“Any discoveries that we make can be quickly commercialized by InvenSense,” Segovia-Fernandez said. “InvenSense only makes products for consumer electronics. They’re not a military contractor. This means that any sensors that come of our project will be for consumers.”

With the popularity of sensors in modern technology, Segovia-Fernandez believes that the vast improvement in sensor development will be successful in today’s market.

“Right now, sensors in wearables and mobile devices are a hot topic,” Segovia-Fernandez said. “If we can make a sensor that operates below one microwatt — 1000 times lower power than the microphone in your cell phone, but still 100 times higher than DARPA’s goal — InvenSense could ship one billion of these.”

According to Amirtharajah, the team has been researching low-power sensors long before taking on the project proposed by DARPA. Armirtharajah revealed that this experience has given the team the confidence to take on this innovative technology.

“Our project was initiated in response to the DARPA solicitation for new technology to address the ultra-low-power sensor need for a specific defense application,” Amirtharajah said. “However, my research group has been working in ultra-low-power circuits for sensor applications for the last 12 years.”

The project is currently underway and within the next few months, prototypes will be tested. The first prototypes are expected to be tested in January 2016, according to Segovia-Fernandez. In the test, the sensors are required to sense the presence of a power generator in an urban environment while fulfilling a minute power budget.

The team had already collaborated with a group of UC Berkeley researchers prior to this project to create ultrasonic fingerprint scanning that will likely be used in smartphones by 2018.

“This is an exciting win for our college,” said Jean VanderGheynst, associate dean of research and graduate studies at the College of Engineering. “Professor Horsley’s research team is leveraging major investments that the college and campus have made in nano- and micro-manufacturing. I look forward to seeing additional success in these areas.”

Written by Nick Griffen – campus@theaggie.org

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