Imagine a future where all of your battery-powered devices never run out of charge -- a future where smartphones and tablets, smartwatches, headphones, handheld game units, laptops, portable battery units, and even robots and drones -- are all running on an endless source of energy beamed from an invisible source, with no cables or wires.
Imagine power consumed in a transparent, ubiquitous manner, in the same way that wireless networking occurs with Wi-Fi today. Imagine never plugging a smartphone in ever again or docking it with a pad, where it requires either proper alignment for the connection to work or a clunky magnetic-attached workaround like Apple's MagSafe.
Imagine never taking your smartwatch off to be charged.
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It sounds like science fiction -- perhaps even fantasy. But the fundamental principles of transmitting power using electromagnetic waves were demonstrated successfully, over short ranges -- using radiofrequency resonant transformers, with near-field capacitive couplings, by no other than the mysterious and enigmatic Nikola Tesla himself, during the 1890s and the early 20th century.
Tesla's wireless power transmission technology was never made practical due to the very high voltages and the immense size of the equipment and infrastructure needed to implement it. The high-concept idea was over a century before its time.
But Nikola Tesla's vision of a wirelessly powered world may be closer than we think.
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A team of former CalTech researchers at GuRu -- a Silicon Valley startup founded in 2017 that has received over $15 million in venture funding -- has been working in relative stealth mode to apply these principles to the modern digital age.
The company announced today that it has secured a licensing partnership with Motorola Mobility, a Lenovo subsidiary, for building its wireless charging technology into Motorola's smartphones.
Instead of using one huge power transmitter, which blasts waves of energy in all directions, GuRu's solution uses a small transmitter made up of interconnected modules that use millimeter-waves (mmWave), a radio frequency typically defined in the 30GHz to 300GHz range that works within line-of-sight. (MmWave is also used by the current 5G standard to send data at extremely high speed over relatively short distances compared to the Sub-6 GHz 5G tech.)
Because GuRu is using millimeter-wave frequencies and smart algorithms, its transmitters and receivers can be miniaturized, and it allows it to better direct and confine the EM waves compared to waves in the higher microwave bands -- the very same wavelengths where Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are operating.
Using a small, ceiling-mounted power generator (which could be concealed in overhead lighting fixtures or floor lamps), referred to as a "Gu," or Generator Unit, those millimeter waves are "lensed" using electronic steering and timing to send a focused beam of energy to the "Ru," or Receiver Unit, a chip-sized module that can be incorporated into the receiving device, such as a smartphone.
According to GuRu, smart technology built into the transmitter and the receiver temporarily cuts power transmission if a person, pet, or object obstructs the beam. The Gu can interact with, negotiate, and continuously track multiple Ru's in a room simultaneously, at distances exceeding 30 feet, regardless of their wattage requirement. It can scale from a few watts of power needed for something like a powered earbuds case, headphones, or a smartwatch, all the way up to dozens of watts needed to power a large tablet or a laptop. Multiple devices in a room can draw energy transparently, using intelligent charging algorithms, all from a single Gu unit.
The path to adoption of wireless power
Imagine if this technology proves effective and affordable enough to implement in the way we now use Wi-Fi. It's possible that within 10 years, the very notion of having to plug a small device in or having any "charge anxiety" due to battery depletion in major population centers, homes, buildings, and other public spaces will be a distant memory. Imagine if these Gu transmitters are installed in public spaces, co-located with Wi-Fi access points, and even installed in automobiles.
Having to travel with spare charging cords, adapters, or backup batteries may also become a thing of the past, or relegated to a technology of last resort, provided enough GuRu infrastructure ubiquity existed, and the technology can be rolled out quickly.
Fortunately, at least in North America, the adoption hurdles are unlikely to be regulatory in nature. In the US, devices using wireless over-the-air charging technologies with RF (such as GuRu's Gu transmitters) are considered Industrial, Scientific, and Medical (ISM) devices rather than telecommunications devices that use Wi-Fi and 5G. Approval is granted to particular devices, not an underlying technology as such.
According to its founders, GuRu's technology is compliant with the definition of an ISM device and is operating in an internationally recognized ISM band (24.0-24.25GHz). GuRu is pursuing approvals worldwide, including Europe and other jurisdictions and regions. The company expects to complete the US and related regulatory approvals by the end of this year, with additional approvals in other regions to follow thereafter.
As far as the US market is concerned, using ISM bands in any product, such as those being considered by Motorola that will use the Ru chip, means they will have to undergo their usual CE certifications on a product-by-product basis.
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The challenges for wireless power
There are, of course, several obstacles that could slow the adoption of technology. One of these is public perception -- as 5G's use of millimeter waves already raises the ire of tinfoil-hatters, and it's been the subject of endless unsupported conspiracy theories.
There is also the issue of whether or not a single company's efforts can be adopted as the prevalent standard. Naturally, GuRu's technology is proprietary, as is its implementation, unlike other wireless technologies such as Qi, Bluetooth, Zigbee, Wi-Fi, and 5G -- all these are consortium-led. There are open-source stacks and open reference implementations in addition to closed implementations for all of these.
We also have to assume that GuRu is not the only implementation for room-based wireless power transmission being researched -- similar efforts for long-range power transmission are being conducted in New Zealand by another startup, Emrod. It's certainly possible this is a technology Apple and Samsung are also developing for their devices, not just Motorola, and they may be implementing their own wireless power platforms to compete with GuRu as well.
In any case -- regardless of whose wireless power standard or implementation becomes the predominant one -- we are heading toward a near future where device charging cords will become a quaint memory, like dialup modems, corded phones, and landlines.