This week at the International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM), in Baltimore, Md., Cornell University engineers presented research that shows progress in powering cybernetic organisms with a radioactive fuel source.
Electrical engineering associate professor Amit Lal and graduate student Steven Tin presented a prototype microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) transmitter—an RF-emitting device powered by a radioactive source with a half-life of 12 years, meaning that it could operate autonomously for decades. The researchers think the new RFID transmitter, which produces a 5-milliwatt, 10-microsecond-long, 100-megahertz radio-frequency pulse, could lead to the widespread use of radioisotope power sources.
The work is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which also funds Lal and Tin’s work on another project, called Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS), whose aim is the creation of hybrid cybernetic organisms. In his presentation, Tin said that part of the goal of the radioisotope transmitter work is to power the insects that the group is developing for DARPA. The HI-MEMS program, which is approaching its fourth year, has already grown several kinds of insects—moths and beetles—with implanted control electronics. With such controls, they can be driven by a remote operator for ”stealth applications” and disaster response.
The insects themselves are powered by their own living tissue, but the onboard electronics (sensors and transmitters) require a separate power source. But the insects are too light to carry batteries, and logistical problems would prevent regular battery changes regardless. Therefore, Lal and his group at Cornell turned to radioactive isotopes to generate the necessary power.
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