Geek of the Week: UW’s Vikram Iyer uses small insects to tackle big wireless computing problems

Vikram Iyer of the University of Washington working with a beetle with a camera mounted on its back. (UW Photo / Mark Stone)

Some of Vikram Iyer’s biggest ideas come in the smallest packages. And those packages can even be attached to insects.

A PhD student at the University of Washington, Iyer works in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering’s Networks and Mobile Systems Lab under the direction of Associate Professor Shyam Gollakota. His research focuses on wireless technologies including the development of bio-inspired and bio-integrative wireless sensors.

On Tuesday, along with being named GeekWire’s latest Geek of the Week, Iyer was recognized as a 2020 Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar. The award recognizes the world’s most innovative young researchers who are “creating tomorrow’s information and communications technology in service of a digitally inclusive world.”

In July, Iyer made headlines as co-lead author of a UW study in which a low-power, low-weight, wireless camera system was attached to the back of a live beetle to better understand how to deploy wireless vision in very small robots.

“Vision has become an integral part of most larger robotic systems — think cameras on drones and autonomous cars,” Iyer said. “When we start talking about really small robots though, about the size of a penny, wireless vision becomes pretty challenging due to power size and weight requirements. While the camera chips we have in things like our phones can be small, they still have pretty large batteries and processors. This work now enables robots at this very small scale to ‘see.’”

Vikram Iyer working with bees at the University of Washington. (UW Photo / Mark Stone)

After demonstrating the first wireless liftoff of the lightest aerial vehicle to mimic insect flight, Iyer began to explore alternative, biological solutions for sensor mobility. This led to developing a wireless sensing platform that could be deployed on bumblebees. It’s all about shrinking down the size, weight, and power of computing and sensor systems. That capability opens up all kinds of possibilities for both tiny robots and new bio-hybrid systems. Small robots have lots of potential in industry since they can get into confined spaces, and could also be useful for healthcare.

“The ability to augment live animals with small electronics also opens up applications that weren’t possible before,” Iyer said, adding that they’ve gotten interest from other researchers working in biology and conservation. “There are lots of questions we could explore in this space, like could we use these platforms as tools to study the behavior of insects, birds, and other small animals to understand how they are affected by urbanization and changing climates?”

Before coming to UW, Iyer received his Bachelors in Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley. In addition to his UW work, he is part of the Urban Innovation Initiative at Microsoft Research working on Project Eclipse, a low-cost cloud connected air quality monitoring platform for cities.

“Vikram is a one-of-a-kind creative interdisciplinary researcher who is also humble,” Gollakota said in a news release from the Marconi Society. “He develops creative solutions that are at the intersection of hardware, software and biology. In so doing, he transforms what was once science fiction into reality.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Vikram Iyer:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I build wireless things, which broadly includes technologies for ultra-low power communication, wireless power for cell phones and small robots, and wireless tracking on live insects. Most recently I’ve been working on bio-inspired and bio-integrative wireless sensing systems, which means I do things like glue tiny cameras onto live bugs.

Examples include:

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? One of the cool things about this type of work is we now have these small computing platforms that can fit on the back of an insect, and we could explore a new space of building bio-hybrid systems that leverage the best of nature and man-made technologies. For example, insects are much better at storing energy and can power themselves for much longer than our batteries can run a robot, so could we try controlling an insect and using it to move a sensor around? Or could we tap into their neural signals and use their own sensors that are sometimes better than what we can build?

Where do you find your inspiration? Building small robots and sensors is hard, and in many cases nature does a much better job. For example a bee can fly around for hours longer than drones we can build. It certainly helps that evolution has a few million years head start on us, so lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can learn from natural systems and about ways we can piggyback on their abilities to achieve things we couldn’t otherwise build.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? It’s hard to pick one thing since so many technologies rely and build off of one another, but I did discover a newfound appreciation for refrigerators after having one break right after issuance of a stay at home order.

(UW Photo / Mark Stone)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I had a desk at some point. Then I had to move it down to the depths of the lower basement and back for experiments a few times. And then into a larger lab. At some point I gave up on it since it’s hard to have all the equipment and tools I need in one room, and a lot of my work involves collaborating with other researchers. Now I migrate between various labs across three different buildings and departments, and lately like everyone else have been spending more time working from home as well. Sometimes I’ll also be out doing experiments in the field or trying to catch bugs. Here are some (pre-COVID) pictures of where I actually build the tiny cameras and other insect-scale electronics under a microscope and catching bees.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) I’m often most productive when I can sit down and focus on getting one thing done well. That works well for me, and is helpful for doing tasks like putting together small parts under a microscope. Doesn’t work for everyone and all types of work, but being able to focus on something and give some attention to detail can go a long way.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Whatever I need to use. There are some things that are easier to do on Mac/Linux, but then sometimes I use a laser cutter connected to a computer running an old version of Windows.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine, for those times when there just aren’t enough hours in a day.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … build less fragile tiny robots and better adapt them to real applications.

I once waited in line for … a lot more these days.

Your role models: My parents and grandparents, for showing the importance of hard work and perseverance.

Greatest game in history: Not sure about in history, but winning a game of tug of war against a large dog is always satisfying.

Best gadget ever: Espresso machine.

First computer: Some kind of beige box that ran Windows 95, had a dial up connection and a floppy disk drive.

Current Phone: iPhone 6s. Still works fine.

Favorite app: Google Keep is a good place to dump all kinds of thoughts. I also learn a lot of cool things by listening to NPR One while doing otherwise mundane tasks.

Favorite cause: #BLM. Also, Save the Bees. And, working with WSDA on tagging and tracking the Asian giant hornets (very much work in progress).

Most important technology of 2020: A COVID-19 vaccine.

Most important technology of 2022: Probably also a COVID-19 vaccine(s), as well as all of the improvements and infrastructure needed to scale, produce, transport and administer it to everyone around the world.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: For whatever you’re doing, keep at it and don’t give up too easily. The best things often don’t come easily. Although, when you get really stuck on something it can help to think about whether you’re solving the right problem, if you can start with something easier, or try another solution.

Website: VikramIyer.com

LinkedIn: Vikram Iyer

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