UW News

October 4, 2021

UW’s Shyam Gollakota named 2021 Moore Inventor Fellow

headshot of Shyam Gollakota

Shyam Gollakota, a professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, is being recognized as a Moore Inventor Fellow for his work on the Internet of Biological Things and the Internet of Bio-Inspired Things. Tara Gimmer/Jeeva Wireless

When you look outside, you might daydream. You might notice a bird on a tree or the funny shape of a cloud. When Shyam Gollakota looks outside, he thinks about solving big problems — like how to monitor a farm, track diseases or go into the heart of an explosion or the middle of a volcano.

Gollakota, a University of Washington professor in the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, has taken inspiration from nature’s tiniest creatures, creating inventions that allow humans to use technology to go where they haven’t gone before. He is being celebrated for those inventions as a 2021 Moore Inventor Fellow.

“Outside there’s a whole world on every square foot, with living beings that you don’t even think about. We just walk over it,” Gollakota said. “But there’s so much happening — feats of engineering. There’s so much beauty in these tiny things.”

As one of five fellows for 2021, Gollakota will receive a total of $825,000 supporting his inventions, which includes $675,000 over three years from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $50,000 per year from the UW.

Built in collaboration with the team he leads at the UW Network and Mobile Systems Lab, Gollakota’s inventions include a sensor so tiny that it can ride on the back of a moth, a sensor that fits in a removable “backpack” on a bumblebee, a camera that a beetle can carry and sensors that can fly like dandelion seeds.

A beetle with a camera system on its back moves through a patch of moss

Gollakota is being honored for inventions like a camera that can ride on the back of a beetle.Mark Stone/University of Washington

There is limitless potential for technology this small in size and light in weight. You can track temperature, humidity and crop health in different areas of a large farm, bringing new meaning to the term “worker bee.” Researchers could attach teensy sensors to drones and send them into environmentally sensitive areas. Tiny cameras could allow you to explore novel environments.

Vikram Iyer — a former Electrical & Computer Engineering doctoral student in Gollakota’s lab who just joined the Allen School as an assistant professor — used similar technology to track the Asian giant hornet when the species was terrorizing the Bellingham area in Washington last fall.

Gollakota’s work is part of the research areas known as the Internet of Biological Things and Internet of Bio-Inspired Things. These phrases extend a concept known as the Internet of Things, which refers to the vast number of objects wirelessly exchanging data over the internet, from your smart speaker to tractors outfitted with satellite-connected guidance to smart power grids.

With the Internet of Biological Things, organisms are part of this web of connectivity. A drone drains its battery after 20 minutes, but an insect like a bee can travel for hours. It can carry sensors to places a drone couldn’t easily go, while also offering intelligence you couldn’t get from a machine, such as locating areas that are best for pollination.

With the Internet of Bio-Inspired Things, scientists look at the “feats of engineering” present in every living thing and use that as inspiration for designs. For example, ants can fall from a tall building and survive. Gollakota used ants as models to design the tiny sensors that can be dropped from great heights.

To do this work, Gollakota has assembled a research group with expertise that spans disciplines, including computer science, biology and electrical, mechanical and aerospace engineering.

“There is a lot of potential for innovation at the interface of disciplines,” Gollakota said.

He points out that interdisciplinary efforts require you to learn how people in different fields think — the language they speak, what they care about and the nuances of their work. It also requires vulnerability. You might need to ask questions, like, “What is happening?” or, “How does it work?” — questions that might feel naive if you’re used to working in areas where you have strong expertise or authority.

With vulnerability can come failure, which Gollakota says is “actually good for keeping an open mind … you’re learning what you can do better — and that’s basic growth.”

Gollakota is now working with UW colleagues in biology to move beyond putting electronics in a tiny backpack. They are investigating how to ethically use gene editing to further integrate electronics and insects. Their dream is to create a bio-hybrid system that could smell and diagnose diseases.

“Looking 10 years from now, melding electronics and biology has the potential to change the world,” he said.

Whatever the future holds, Gollakota will be driven by the characteristics that have always motivated him: curiosity and awe at the natural world. These provide inspiration for his work and dictate the sorts of projects he chooses to pursue — those that celebrate the power of nature.

“Happiness comes by looking outside and seeing how beautiful it is,” Gollakota said. “If you don’t have that, then what’s the point of all the technology?”