I divided this project, called RFly, into different parts so that my team could work in tandem. Every day we met and shared our progress. This was a great opportunity for me to give my researchers timely and frequent feedback and make sure we were all on track towards our deadline.
Collaboration was key, especially during my group’s first couple of months. While our permanent lab space was getting set up, we only had one cramped office in which we all sat and worked together. But by mid-December, our lab was ready and we moved into a new space with high ceilings. We could finally fly our drones there and start testing our ideas! It was all very exciting.
But there were some hurdles, and the first one arose too soon. The airborne circuit we had sent for fabrication was delayed. Upon contacting the fabrication company, we found out that they’d made an error and hadn’t started fabricating our circuit. This meant that we would not be able to submit our paper on time.
So, I pivoted my team to work on a complementary research question: Could we transform the battery-free wireless stickers into powerful radars without any hardware modification? Answering this question would allow us to obviate the need for the delayed circuit. While it would not solve the same problems as our drone-based design at the scale of warehouses, it could still have enormous implications for smart environments, robotics, and virtual reality.
During the following stressful week, my brilliant team was able to make significant progress on this new idea. At the same time, I contacted the fabrication company and requested expediting the assembly to make up for their delay. The director promised to honor my request, but I did not share his response with my researchers as I did not want to raise their hopes prematurely. Fortunately, the fabricated circuits arrived the week after, and we were all very happy to resume working on the drone-based project. We were two weeks behind schedule, but I promised my team that we could still make the deadline if we pushed hard enough. And we did.
More importantly, the progress that we’d made as we were waiting for the delayed circuit meant that by the time we had submitted our first paper, RFly, our stickers-to-radar project, called RFind, had already taken off. In the subsequent weeks, we built on our initial progress and designed algorithms that exploit the physics of battery-free stickers to enable precise positioning.
The video below shows how RFind can solve common problems in our everyday lives—like finding misplaced keys, wallets, or glasses. We also demonstrated how the same algorithms can enable various applications in virtual reality, robotics, and smart environments.