This Battery-Free Computer Sucks Power Out Of Thin Air

This Battery-Free Computer Sucks Power Out Of Thin Air, by John Brownlee.

Today, the biggest hurdle when it comes to designing new gadgets is battery technology. These big, bulky things restrict the forms our smartphones, computers, and wearables can take, and unfortunately, battery technology is so stagnant that there’s no promise of things getting better any time soon.

Enter the WISP, which can do some minimal computing:

[T]he WISP, or Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform, [is] a combination sensor and computing chip that doesn’t need a battery or a wired power source to operate. Instead, it sucks in radio waves emitted from a standard, off-the-shelf RFID reader—the same technology that retail shops use to deter shoplifters—and converts them into electricity.

The WISP isn’t designed to compete with the chips in your smartphone or your laptop. It has about the same clock speed as the processor in a Fitbit and similar functionality, including embedded accelerometers and temperature sensors. “It’s not going to run a video game, but it can track sensor data, do some minimal processing tasks, and communicate with the outside world,” says Aaron Parks, a researcher at the University of Washington Sensor Lab.

There are also ambient battery-free sensors, weaker again:

[T]here’s also ambient battery-free sensors that leech whatever power they can, from passing television waves, cell towers, and so on. But right now, these ambient battery-free computers are very slow … By pairing the WISP with an RFID reader, Parks says they’ve been able to make a battery-free computer that’s up to 10 times as powerful as an ambient one.

Some applications of the WISP:

By embedding these sensors in concrete structures, inspectors could detect whether or not a building’s foundations had been damaged by an earthquake—without cracking anything open. Parks also says battery-free computers are perfect for implantable devices, to monitor patients’ health. There’s also interest in WISP-like computers from the agriculture industry, which sees value in it as a way of monitoring thousands of plants at a time. …

The ultimate appeal of WISP and other battery-free computers, though, is in fully realizing the Internet of Things. It could give “dumb” objects some smarts. “Imagine if your wallpaper could run apps, or change color to match your lighting, without having to wire it into anything,” says Parks. “That’s not out of the question anymore.”

hat-tip Matthew