UNTETHERING ELECTRONICS: Disruptive Power Technologies

By Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., Nerac Analyst

Originally Published September 10, 2018

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Untethering Electronics

Running out of battery power in a cell phone is annoying. For a medical device, it can be life-threatening!

Technology has come a long way since the 1890s when Nikola Tesla first envisioned a wireless power transmission system. Could he ever have imagined a world dominated by handheld electronic devices? It was twenty years ago, WiFi was introduced to transmit voice and data wirelessly to consumers. I know of no consumer who ever looked back to return to dial-up. Will recharging electronics wirelessly become as ubiquitous? A handful of start-up companies are working to do just that. This report summarizes the state of the art in through-air distance wireless power with a focus on near-term technology commercialization.

The Technology

Today’s predominant mode of power transfer is through radio-frequency (RF) waves. This requires a transmitter, a receiver, and software to control the system. To be successful in the market, wireless power transfer solutions must be practical, affordable, and able to charge multiple devices simultaneously and within reasonable range of a transmitter. Some analysts add that transmitters, especially those in the home, can’t be eyesores, and indeed the vision of design-oriented individuals is to build the tech into furniture or walls. However, the WiFi unit sitting on top of a refrigerator or bookshelf does not generate much fashionable interior design anxiety in most people.

Challenges

The position of the device, relative to the transmitter determines the speed of charging that can challenge a technology. This annoyance is akin to waving a cellphone over one’s head, standing on a rock in the woods, or hovering close to an open window to see if a better cell tower signal can be found. Position sensitivity to a transmitter remains a challenge. Another challenge is the power draw of the device to be charged. Power-intensive devices charge better closer to the wireless transmitter, while very low power sensors can trickle charge 8-10x as far from the transmitter. From a regulatory perspective, to operate commercially, these systems must pass FCC and Global Exposure Requirements for Safety and Interference. The RF technology companies described below have passed the requirements. The RF-based technologies rely on the ISM range band (industrial, scientific and medical)allowed by FCC, to deliver power.

The Companies

Energous has developed WattUp, a radio-frequency (RF) based technology that uses radio waves to transmit power. A transmitter, or power router sends out RF waves. The device to be charged has a 3mm x 3mm receiver embedded within it that converts the radio wave into power. Energous has two different transmitters, a near-field transmitter, that can charge devices from 2-3 feet away and a far-field transmitter, that can charge devices at a distance. By meshing these latter transmitters, progressively larger areas can be covered. A key feature is in the software which controls what device can be charged, for how long, and when the user wants it charged. An early adopter of this technology is SKIIN. This company has incorporated WattUp in their smart underwear which will provide remote diagnostics for health monitoring 24/7.

YankTech has developed The MotherBox, another RF-based technology. The transmitter is composed of a unique 3-D antenna that extends the range of energy transmission. The receiver consists of a thin smart-phone size flat panel that is affixed to the device needing to be charged. This feature makes it easier to sell to consumers who are content to tack it on to the back of their smartphone without having to wait for the next-gen phone to have a receiver incorporated. The MotherBox transmitter comes in two sizes, the smaller size can also be battery operated and used as a portable wireless recharger. Its range, however, is smaller than the full size MotherBox. The 2-3 pound weight of the smaller unit may be a strain on carrying it in a purse of daypack compared to an auxiliary battery. The consumer market price the company is offering for these devices are under $200 USD for the transmitter and under $20 USD for the receiver on IndieGoGo. Software integrates both parts of the system via an app.

Ossia has developed Cota Wireless Power System that is also RF-based. Ossia is a technology development company and does not manufacture any products but licenses their technology to interested parties. The company has partnered with Displaydata. Displaydata’s electronic shelf labels allow retailers to dynamically change pricing and other displayed content for products on any shelf, anywhere, in seconds. Displaydata prides itself on solutions using cutting-edge technology including wireless power. Wireless power will reduce the cost of their technology as wiring any store is a major expense. To enter the automotive market, Ossia has formed a joint venture with Motherson Innovations where they will focus on the integration of Cota technology into a wide range of non-military passenger, commercial and public transportation vehicles.

Unlike the RF wave transmitters to generate power, uBeam uses ultrasound to transmit power electronics. Unfortunately, this technology requires line of sight between the device to be charged and the transmitter. Unlike radio-frequency emissions, ultrasound decays rapidly in the air. However, this creates a safe and containable system, ensuring that no power is sent beyond the set range of the transmitter. uBeam advantages as a wireless power technology are that it can be used in an aircraft, car or hospital because it does not interface with any existing communication systems or electronics, according to the founder.

Wi-Charge uses infrared technology to remotely charge electronics. Transmitters connect to a standard power source and deliver power to nearby receivers. Receivers use a miniature photovoltaic cell to convert transmitted infrared light into electrical power. The challenge is that this technology also is a line-of-sight transmission. Software is used to detect and control transmission of the infrared (IR) radiation and if there is an interference from a person or object it will turn off the focused beam if the receiver is not visible. Conversion efficiencies are claimed to be 100%.

How Can Nerac Help?

Disruptive technologies can be brutal to incremental technology development.

Interested in learning more about disruptive technologies that may impact your product development or enhance it? Let Nerac help. We can provide a complete assessment of a company claimed disruptive technology through analysis of their patent literature, company website, press releases, social media and blog chatter to assess the state and viability of their technology. Nerac can also identify potential competitors and M&A or licensing/partnering opportunities.

Nerac is here for you to keep you in front of any disruptive technological surprise that can hurt your bottom line. Contact us here to learn more.

About the Analyst

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D.

Rosemarie Szostak, Ph.D., advises companies on technology, patents, innovation and disruptive technology. She has 20 plus years of experience as a thought leader and analyst with broad technical knowledge in chemistry, materials and chemical engineering.

Academic Credentials

  • Post Doctoral Fellow, Chemical Engineering Department, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Ph.D., Chemistry, University of California Los Angeles
  • M.S., Chemistry/Physics, Georgetown University

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