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Swarming sensors open the world up for exploration

A project funded under Horizon 2020’s Future Emerging Technologies programme is letting us explore, map and understand even the most difficult- and dangerous-to-reach environments.

Industrial Technologies

Humans are creatures of exploration. Each new environment we understand gives us new knowledge that can benefit society. Yet there is still much to explore, including the structures we are creating every day. Mapping pipelines could help us to find structural faults or leaks that are affecting the delivery of safe drinking water and check its quality. Exploring underground channels could make the extraction of natural gas more efficient, and help us to find new locations to store CO2 from carbon capture technologies. Peering deep into volcanoes and inside glaciers could help scientists model climate change better. Yet even the most advanced sensors cannot reach these locations safely and effectively. That’s where the Phoenix (Exploring the Unknown through Reincarnation and Co-evolution) project comes in. Phoenix has integrated elements of software, hardware and Artificial Intelligence to create swarming motes – tiny robotic spheres that can travel to unknown locations, exploring, sensing and mapping as they go. “We keep running into people who are interested in trying our Phoenix SMARBLE technology for new applications, such as inspection of industrial mixing tanks, inspection of sewer systems and water cleaning, home monitoring, and (but this would be rather further into the future) medical applications,” says Peter Baltus, Professor and Chair of the Integrated Circuits group from the Department of Electrical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology and Phoenix project coordinator.

Advanced simplicity

The tiny bots are just 6 cm in diameter, but, with advanced components, can be feasibly reduced to a cm-sized ball or smaller. At this size and with enhanced battery technology, the motes can also function for far longer. The motes use miniaturised, highly efficient ultrasound electronics and transducers, which use less space and also less energy. Testing showed communication can work between the motes up to several metres while underwater. Yet much of the hardware is adapted from off-the-shelf components, to be made more efficient and smaller. In the future, these can and will be seamlessly swapped out as technology advances.

Crowd intelligence

Some key underpinnings of the technology are the ability for the tiny robots to self-organise, adapt to new environments and divide labour between themselves autonomously in many cases. This flexibility is opening up new avenues for use of the technology, including applications that have restrictive conditions based on size, sensor parameters, battery life and the robustness when faced with both physical and chemical effects. “Phoenix does seem to lend itself very well to adapt to these different requirements since we don’t need a single sensor ball that can do everything but instead can spread out the work,” Baltus explains.

Rise of the Phoenix

The Phoenix team has been approached by a wide range of interested groups, who see a use for the technology in their line of work or research. “It is great to see so much interest and enthusiasm for an idea that just a few years ago was often considered to be science fiction at best. I’m certain that we would not have been able to find any other funding source that would be willing to invest in such a risky idea – and therefore we would not have been able to explore and evolve this technology at all without Horizon 2020!”

Keywords

Phoenix, motes, explore, mapping, sensors, environment, pipelines

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