UW researchers pulling energy out of the air
UW computer-science faculty members Joshua Smith and Shyam Gollakota are starting a company to produce wireless, battery-free sensing devices that could go on sale within a few years.
Seattle Times technology columnist
Cisco claims the next big thing in technology — the “Internet of Things” — is a $19 trillion opportunity for businesses and governments.
The Internet of Things refers to billions of sensors, cameras and other data-gathering gadgets and related services emerging to monitor, analyze and manage the world.
Think sensors tracking and beaming data about fish in rivers, leaves in gutters and air in your tires. We’re already starting to monitor and adjust our home’s lighting, heat and Crock-Pots over the Internet. In factories, tools, pulleys and belts can wirelessly stream data about wear and performance.
Research firm Gartner estimates that 26 billion such devices will be installed by 2020.
They’ll all need electricity and connectivity so you’d think half of the $19 trillion might end up spent on batteries, and the labor to replace them over and over again.
Battery makers shouldn’t break out the bubbly just yet, though.
A team of researchers at the University of Washington has timely new technology that could make the Internet of Things easier to set up and run.
They figured out how to power and connect devices that run without batteries, plugs or cables. Instead, they’ll pull power out of thin air and piggyback on nearby Wi-Fi signals.
Computer-science faculty members Joshua Smith and Shyam Gollakota have been wowing the academic community with demos of this technology — and steadily boosting its capabilities — for years.
Now they’re starting a company to begin producing truly wireless, battery-free sensing devices that could go on sale within a few years.
Called Jiva Wireless, the company was briefly mentioned during a research showcase last week at the UW’s computer science and engineering department.
Jiva’s only just hatched — barely out of the shell — with simply a name, provisional patent filings and a few early conversations with investors and potential partners.
But its founders’ ambitions are fully developed, as is their confidence in rising above the stampede of companies chasing those trillions.
“The idea of the Internet of Things has got people thinking in this direction and imagining the kinds of things they’d like to do, then you run into the power problem and the communication problem,’’ Smith said. “If we can solve those, we can make the Internet of Things happen.”
A former Intel researcher who joined the UW in 2011, Smith is known for his work on energy harvesting, such as figuring out how to power devices by drawing on the energy produced by TV broadcasts. Earlier, his postgraduate research on sensors was licensed by Honda and has been used in air-bag systems since the early 2000s.
One of these days Intel may draw on Smith’s work to wirelessly power PC accessories. Meanwhile it’s been particularly helpful to a team at Harvard that’s building robotic insects, such as bees and cockroaches.
Lately, Smith and his UW students have been working on ways to power devices by drawing on energy produced by Wi-Fi, and ways to combine and use energy harvested from multiple sources.
Energy harvesting isn’t new and it’s been pursued by a number of other researchers and entrepreneurs. But research by Smith and his group stands out, according to Arogyaswami Paulraj, a Stanford professor emeritus who developed key technology underlying modern Wi-Fi and 4G wireless networks.
“I have seen work in related areas at other universities earlier, but Joshua’s work is particularly impressive,” Paulraj said via email, after a visit to the UW last week.
Gollakota, meanwhile, has been figuring out ways that devices could connect and communicate by selectively absorbing and reflecting Wi-Fi signals in the area.
This “ambient backscatter communication” enables devices to send data without an active radio, which would require a battery or some other built-in energy source.
So they combined forces and decided to start Jiva, along with three student researchers. The name is from a Sanskrit word that means life and suggests an immortal soul, Smith said, which applies to devices intended to operate perpetually.
Both professors are likely to take a leave of absence next year to get the company going at one of the UW’s startup incubation facilities, if they can find an open spot.
“What we have is a technology that can provide connectivity and power to the next billion devices,” Gollakota said.
A number of them may be made by Jiva. The company is likely to start by producing sensor devices for home and industrial use. Smith said it could have devices to demonstrate the platform in six to nine months and products for sale as early as 2016.
A research example shown at the UW event was a battery-free, wireless camera that harvests power and stores it until it has enough onboard, then takes and sends a picture. It was inspired by a Russian spy microphone discovered in a U.S. embassy.
Jiva may develop its own Wi-Fi access points to power and communicate with devices using its technology. But its system can work with off-the-shelf Wi-Fi gear, after a firmware modification.
One reason this is finally moving from research to commercialization is because of big advances in the efficiency of computing. Computers are getting more powerful and smaller, as well as being able to do more with far less energy, Smith said.
That’s made it feasible to start doing useful things with computing devices using the tiny amount of power that can be pulled from the air.
Sensors may be just the start. Phones could begin using this technology within five years or so, Smith said.
It could be used to power a supplemental system on handsets, such as one that enables you to locate a phone even after its battery has died, or one that delivers alerts to a low-power, secondary screen.
Eventually the technology may become so commonplace we take it for granted, making battery life much less of a concern.
“In five to 10 years, I think it will be quite common to have wirelessly powered devices — it may even seem to be completely boring,” Smith said.
Maybe that’s why Procter & Gamble decided last week to sell its Duracell battery business.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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