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Tiny Solar-Powered Sensors Float on the Wind to Gather Environmental Data

Inspired by dandelion seeds, they can be dispersed by drones across a large area to monitor issues like climate change and forest fires.

Jesse Orrall Senior Video Producer
Jesse Orrall (he/him/his) is a Senior Video Producer for CNET. He covers future tech, sustainability and the social impact of technology. He is co-host of CNET's "What The Future" series and Executive Producer of "Experts React." Aside from making videos, he's a certified SCUBA diver with a passion for music, films, history and ecology.
Expertise Future tech, sustainability, and social impact of technology Credentials
  • Gold Telly Award, 2X Silver Telly Award
Jesse Orrall

As we face ever-increasing ecological challenges, gathering environmental data will be important in the development of technology that can help heal the natural world.

Researchers at the University of Washington have a new tool they hope can aid in this effort: tiny battery-free sensors that can be dispersed in the wind via drones and gather environmental data over large areas.

The inspiration for these sensors is the dandelion seed.

Sensor atop a dandelion

A sensor sits atop a dandelion, the plant whose wind-surfing seeds inspired its design.

CNET

The electronics that gather the data and transmit it wirelessly sit on a plastic disc that's laser-cut into a shape designed to be carried by the wind and also land with the solar panels that power the device face up.

Vikram Iyer, an assistant professor at UW, said that the devices are small and light enough that a drone can carry 1,000 of them.

A gold colored plastic disc and tiny electronics make up the sensor

Here are the sensor's electronics and plastic disc that carries it in the wind.

CNET

Researchers from UW said they are working to make these types of electronic devices more sustainable and are investigating ways to change the shape of the device as it falls to give greater control over where it lands.

To see these dandelion-inspired sensors up close and dropped from a drone, check out the video above of our trip to the lab.