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Nature inspired technology

Dr. Jalal Ahamed holds a sensorDr. Jalal Ahamed and his team in the Micro Nano Mechatronic Research Lab have designed a microchip with nine sensors that can simultaneously track orientation, acceleration, velocity, position, temperature and elevation of a moving object.

A University of Windsor engineering professor is turning to nature to inspire his research. Dr. Jalal Ahamed and his team in the Micro Nano Mechatronic Research Lab are working on technologies that replicate the stabilizing, rapid wingbeats of a bee and the echoes bats use to navigate and forage.

The research group has designed a microchip with microscopic wings that flap at high speeds at a set frequency when electrical wires apply voltage. When a change in orientation or motion is detected, the thin, gold-coated, silicon wings will alter their flapping speed.

“This allows the sensor to register a change in frequency and process it in relation to the target physical parameters,” Dr. Ahamed says about the signals sent via electrical connections underneath the wings. “We can detect any physical parameters that change by the frequency of the buzzing wings.”

One chip houses nine sensors that can simultaneously track orientation, acceleration, velocity, position, temperature and elevation of a moving object. Less than half a centimetre in size, the chip can be used in many applications from detecting motion and orientation of virtual reality headsets to airplanes.

The tiny sensors are constructed on a micro scale using standard semiconductor-based microfabrication techniques, the same way most electronic components are manufactured. The engineering professor, who specializes in small scale manufacturing, says what makes their research unique is the combination sensors that are densely packed on a single microchip.

The intricate design of the flaps includes details that are half the size of the diameter of a single hair. Each device is branded with the smallest University of Windsor crest ever produced. Another project the lab is perfecting is a navigation system to assist the visually impaired and those in low-visibility environments.

Unlike most navigation systems, which rely on a GPS satellite signal, the research team’s wearable smart device uses motion and acoustic wave sensors to detect nearby objects — the same way bats use sound waves to navigate.

“The design, testing, packaging and miniaturizing have been done,” Dr. Ahamed says. “At this point the accuracy is good enough for consumer grade applications, but not quite precise enough for airplanes. We can improve it for high grade applications, however consumer grade products are the biggest market.”

This article is featured in the 2019 issue of Windsor Engineering (WE).