David Horsley’s Research Team Secures DARPA Grant

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA, Oct. 27, 2015—The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has presented a $1.8 million grant to a project headed by David Horsley, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. The project, “Ultralow Power Microsystems Via an Integrated Piezoelectric MEMS-CMOS Platform,” includes the participation of co-PIs Xiaoguang “Leo” Liu and Rajeevan Amirtharajah, both professors in the UC Davis Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).

David Horsley, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

David Horsley, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

The grant has been made under DARPA’s “Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operations (N-ZERO)” program.

Horsley’s group has teamed up with InvenSense, the company that makes the motion sensors — gyro and accelerometer — in everybody’s smart phones. The UC Davis team and InvenSense are working to develop revolutionary, ultra-low-power sensors that will allow always-on sensing. The program goal is to develop an acoustic sensor and an acceleration sensor that run on near-zero power, producing a wake-up signal when a particular signature is detected: say, a car or truck driving by, or a generator being switched on.

By way of comparison, the existing sensors in smart phones, although already operating on low power, nonetheless require about 10 milliwatts: roughly 1 million times more power than the sensors being developed by Horsley’s team.

The Department of Defense has an unfilled need for persistent, event-driven sensing capabilities, where physical, electromagnetic and other sensors can remain dormant, with near zero-power consumption, until awakened by an external trigger or stimulus. Current state-of-the-art sensors use active electronics to monitor the environment for the external trigger, consuming power continuously and limiting the sensor lifetime to months or less. The N-ZERO program intends to extend the lifetime of remotely deployed communications and environmental sensors from months to years, by supporting projects that demonstrate the ability to continuously and passively monitor the environment, waking an electronic circuit only upon the detection of a specific trigger signature.

Horsley earned his doctorate in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley in 1998. He then entered industry and worked for Dicon Fiberoptics and Hewlett Packard Laboratories, where he was involved in founding Onix Microsystems and Picosense LLC. He joined the UC Davis team in 2003, and won the College of Engineering’s Outstanding Junior Faculty Award in 2009, the same year he received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

In the summer of 2014, the Electronic Engineering Times list of “Silicon 60: Hot Startups to Watch” included Chirp Microsystems Inc., a company founded in late 2013 by a team that includes CTO David Horsley and Bernhard Boser, a professor in the UC Berkeley Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. Chirp’s game-changing advancements in gesture-recognition technology came from the development of tiny chips that employ ultrasound waves to detect three-dimensional gestures.

Horsley’s recent breakthroughs in ultrasound fingerprint scanners — which will greatly enhance smart phone security — have been profiled in the online journal Applied Physics Letters, Nature magazine and even CBS News.

Liu earned his doctorate from Purdue University in 2010, and then spent a year there as a post-doctoral researcher before joining the UC Davis College of Engineering in 2011. His research interests include high-Q tunable high-frequency devices and systems; micro/nano-electromechanical sensors and actuators; terahertz passive and active electronics; and the biomedical, societal and environmental applications of high-frequency electronics. He received the UC Davis Hellman Foundation Fellowship in 2013.

Amirtharajah completed his PhD in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT in 1999. He then spent several years in industry, working for High Speed Solutions Corp., Intel and SMaL Camera Technologies. He joined the UC Davis faculty in 2003, where his research interests have included low-power, very-large-scale integration (VLSI) design for sensor applications; powering systems from ambient energy sources; and high-performance circuit and interconnect design. He received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award in 2006, and spent the 2012-13 academic year as a visiting scholar at the Berkeley Wireless Research Center.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, created in 1958, is responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. DARPA-funded projects also have provided significant technologies that have influenced numerous non-military fields, such as computer networking and graphical user interfaces in information technology.