Courtesy Mark Stone/University of Washington

Researchers at the University of Washington's Networks & Mobile Systems Lab have created 3D-printed objects made of commercial plastics embedded with sensors that can communicate with WiFi-connected devices. This technology employs a method called the backscatter technique, which uses "an antenna to transmit data by reflecting radio signals emitted by a WiFi router or other device," according to an article by the University. The antenna is located inside the 3D-printed object and is formed from conductive printing filament mixed with plastic and copper. The object is activated through physical motion (such as pushing a button or turning a knob) that triggers gears and springs that help connect and disconnect a conductive switch to create a binary code that is then received by the WiFi router. This information is ultimately decoded and read by a smart device.

The innovative technology would help objects communicate with their surroundings as well as with each other, anticipating next steps like measuring the amount of liquid in a test tube or managing inventory. “Our goal was to create something that just comes out of your 3D printer at home and can send useful information to other devices,” said co-lead author and University of Washington electrical engineering doctoral student, Vikram Iyer, in the same article. “But the big challenge is how do you communicate wirelessly with WiFi using only plastic? That’s something that no one has been able to do before.”

The ongoing research is funded by National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and Google.