Nature Inspired Radio Chip

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have built a new radio chip modeled on the workings of the human inner ear, the cochlea. Designed for use in wireless devices capable of receiving cellular phone, wireless internet, radio, and even television signals, the chip is faster than any other radio frequency analyzer and can span the entire spectrum of radio signals using 100 times less power than that required with direct digitization of the same bandwidth.
 A close up view of the radio frequency cochlea chip (Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT)
A close up view of the radio frequency
cochlea chip (Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT)

Dr. Rahul Sarpeshkar, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and his graduate student Soumyajit Mandal examined the workings of the inner ear and adopted their findings for use in their radio frequency analyzer. The cochlea uses fluid mechanics, piezoelectronics, and neural signal processing to turn sound waves into electrical signals that can be interpreted by the brain. The RF cochlea uses inductors, capacitors, and transistors to perform a similar translation that can be interpreted by computers. In the process, scientists say they have not only improved on existing RF chips, but have also gathered previously unknown knowledge about how the hearing process actually works.

The RF cochlea can detect and interpret the signals from most commercial wireless appliances including the aforementioned cellular phone signals, wireless internet signals, radio waves, and television signals. While the device itself is embedded onto silicon chip measuring 1.5 x 3 millimeters, its current antenna is significantly larger than that and was not designed to fit small electronic devices.

 Sarpeshkar and Mandal display their chip next to a wiring diagram (Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT)
Sarpeshkar and Mandal display their
chip next to a wiring diagram
(Credit: Donna Coveney/MIT)

The RF cochlea chip is just one design developed by Sarpeshkar and his research group. The group focuses on biomimetic technology as well as detailed modeling of biological systems and biomedical electronics. The RF cochlea combines all of these fields, turning a detailed model of the human inner ear into a biomimetic radio chip which could one day be used as a biomedical device to improve hearing for the hearing impaired. Sarpeshkar is a major advocate of interdisciplinary research of this sort, who strongly believes that the intersection of biology and electronics or physics and electronics or the like provide new ways of exploring old problems and advances that wouldn’t necessarily occur to experts in either field but become obvious when they are combined.

TFOT has previously reported on other biomimetic technologies including a jumping robot modeled after the grasshopper, the GhostSwimmer robot based on the bluefin tuna, a miniature spy plane inspired by bat anatomy, an amphibious swimming and crawling robot based on a snake, and a climbing robot also modeled after a snake, capable of crawling over high stairs and other obstacles.

Read more about the radio frequency cochlea in this MIT press release or watch a YouTube video of Dr. Sarpeshkar discussing how interdisciplinary research makes advances like this chip possible.

Image icon credit: Jon Sullivan (