Credit: Amin ArbabianCredit: Amin Arbabian

When I was in grade school, my parents bought me a transistor radio. It was about the size of a dictionary, but it ran on batteries and I could put it under my pillow and listen to the Baltimore Orioles’ games as I fell asleep. It was so small and lightweight, it was amazing. Now imagine a complete radio so small that you need a microscope to see its details. That’s what a team of researchers from Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley have managed to create. The size of an ant, the complete device is fabricated on a single tiny silicon chip. The group started by redesigning a radio from the ground up, with the goal of making it as small — and as inexpensive — as possible.

The device includes everything required to make a functioning bidirectional radio, all on a chip just 3.7 by 1.2 mm. It has antennas, processors, and memory all integrated into a single device. The only thing missing is a battery, but surprise! It doesn’t need a battery. The device is so energy efficient due to its tiny size that a single AAA battery could run it for 100 years (if the battery could survive that long). But it is able to harvest sufficient energy from passing radio waves that it is able to power itself without the need for a source of electricity.

Since these tiny radios could cost just pennies to manufacture in mass quantities, they could make any device able to communicate with other devices through a network of tiny radios. Light bulbs could communicate with light switches, eliminating the need for the switch to be on the light’s electrical circuit. Floors, walls, windows, doors, as well as any sort of electrical appliance can be part of this communication network, making truly “smart” houses possible.

This development could have a huge impact on wearable Health Tech systems as well. Biometric sensors would not need a power source to communicate with a network of devices worn on a person’s body or integrated into their clothing. They could all communicate to a single hub that could then pass along the data to the “outside” world for storage, analysis, monitoring, and reporting. It’s a far cry from that book-sized radio that I used to put under my pillow.