NASA Working on Wi-Fi Reflector for Wearables #WearableWednesday


Signals can be a bear, and I can certainly say that from experience since I recently helped a colleague do some tests with an X-Bee at a nature center for a stream monitor. It’s kind of like Murphy’s Law where anything that can interfere will. So, my eyes got a glimmer this week when I spied this post and photos on NASA’s site about a new Wi-Fi Reflector Chip. The idea is to reflect the signal rather than using transmitters and receivers.

This project is a partnership between Adrian Tang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and M.C. Frank Chang of University of California. One use being examined is for wearable tech, which is soon going to be everyday wear for biometrics. The reason for all the fuss is that reflecting the signal saves on energy for the wearable device, so batteries will last longer. Of course, since NASA is involved, there are space opps as well, including transmitting photos and other data with lower energy, which addresses the power issues faced in flight.


Binary isn’t my first language, so here’s a description of how it works.

Information transmitted to and from a wearable device is encoded as 1s and 0s, just like data on a computer. This needs to be represented somehow in the system the wearable device uses to communicate. When incoming energy is absorbed by the circuit, that’s a “0,” and if the chip reflects that energy, that’s a “1.”

Apparently this is a speedy method of communication, but the challenge has been much like that of my nature center–dealing with signals bouncing all over the place. In my case it was a metal building, other tech equipment and the surrounding landscape. The breakthrough that Tang and Chang have developed with their chip is capable of weeding out those reflections in order to identify the actual signal. Tests are exciting:

The technologists have tested the system at distances of up to 20 feet (6 meters). At about 8 feet (2.5 meters), they achieved a data transfer rate of 330 megabits per second, which is about three times the current Wi-Fi rate, using about a thousand times less power than a regular Wi-Fi link.

A challenge still remains–although the wearable is using less energy, the computer or device it is connecting to is using more. So, the duo is still working out those issues, but it seems to me they are already on a great mission. Who knows, maybe some day it will be used for remote monitors at nature centers, too. Hey, since I’m on the topic of WiFi, did you know you can build a widget to find hotspots in your area? Check out our guide for MASLOW: an Open WiFi Detector. Now you can locate open networks by the blink of an LED (and possibly fresh coffee, too). It’s a 3D printed friend that you can use on your next mission–happy travels.

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