Everyday things and even smart buildings could be powered and connected to the Web without any batteries by using the energy that's available in wireless signals.
The University of Washington yesterday announced that its researchers had created prototype devices that repurpose ambient backscatter to compute and communicate. This technique uses existing radio waves from unlicensed spectrum that governments have reserved for public uses such as baby monitors, TV or Wi-Fi connectivity. The RF provides power and a connection.
Things like clothes, keys, wallets, or sunglasses could all be networked using the researcher's specialized chips; industrial telemetry and sensors built into floors or walls would likewise be able to connect with people and other devices. Not using batteries or wires has advantages for convenience, cost, design and engineering. There would be no human intervention necessary, which means nearly anything anywhere could be online.
The chips would have to embed some type of interference mitigation to live in "dirty" spectrum, however. The researchers suggested using TV signals, or so called, "white spaces," which many governments are clearing for smartphones or radios that are used for public safety. TV white space devices require databases of how those frequencies are being used nearby so that a data service doesn't disrupt incumbent users (such as a wireless mic at a broadway musical).
Your mobile carrier probably won't be using this technology unless it's for some sort of home monitoring service. There's been other breakthroughs in battery science that are far more likely to influence smartphones before this research. LTE data services use a lot of power.
Taking this invention from the lab to market would require a lot of funding and many approvals from government regulators. It may really be commercially viable - just keep in mind that the use cases won't necessarily be equivalent to your smart phone data services depending what spectrum is being used. You may not even know that the networks are operating around you, but you'll be living in a 'smarter' world.
Disclosure: My client xG Technology makes radios that share unlicensed spectrum.
Image credit: University of Washington
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