“Ambient backscatter” enables wireless communication without batteries

by: Robert TriggsAugust 15, 2013

ambient backscatter

Wireless energy may not be an entirely new concept, but being able to use communication technologies without having to worry about battery life would be a massive leap ahead of anything currently on the market. Handily, engineers from the University of Washington have created a new wireless communications system that allows devices to exchange information with each other without batteries or any other external power supply.

The technology, which is known as “ambient backscatter”, works by harnessing background radio waves, either absorbing them or reflecting them, in order to send information to other devices. These radio waves act as the sole power source, allowing the transmitting device to essentially piggyback on the energy available from background radio, TV, and WiFi waves that are all around us. [quote qtext=”Our devices form a network out of thin air” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”right”]

The receiving devices can currently pick up a signal from the transmitter at a rate of 1 kilobit per second, when up to 2.5 feet apart outdoors and 1.5 feet apart indoors. That might seem very sluggish compared with mobile data speeds, but it’s enough to send small pieces of information, such as a sensor reading, text messages and contact information. They also tested devices which were able to communicate up to 6.5 miles apart, which is impressive for something with no tangible power supply.

Let’s take a look at the little devices in action.

The technology is still in its early stages, but the developers already have a load of potential implementations in mind, ranging from wireless money transfers, to tagged household items.

[quote qtext=”It’s hopefully going to have applications in a number of areas including wearable computing, smart homes and self-sustaining sensor networks.” qperson=”” qsource=”” qposition=”center”]

Whilst this is a long way off from bringing an end to battery powered mobile devices, there are several helpful ways in which this technology could be used in our favorite gadgets, including giving an empty smartphone battery some additional juice. Ok, so this technology is not going to power up a heavy duty graphics processor, and slow data transfer speeds aren’t going to be any good for browsing the web. However, if you’re battery runs out of energy in the middle of nowhere and you urgently need to send a text message or make an emergency call, then a smartphone with one of these devices built in would potentially be really useful.

There’s still work to be done of course, but the research team at the University of Washington is already aiming to improve both the range and speed of the technology. It’s interesting stuff, with plenty of potential and loads of possible implementations. I for one can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

  • Brody Boswell


  • Luka Mlinar

    CIA is gonna love this.

    • The Black Hand

      Had it for years. The military-industrial complex is on average 30 to 50 years ahead of civilian tech. That’s not counting the D.A.R.P.A., Rand Corp., Ratheon, ect. prototypes and applied technologies. “All of a sudden” is for the most part staged in a lot of the tech industry. It gets released when reliable and cheap.

      • Luka Mlinar

        Regina Dugan came from DARPA. How advanced can they really be :/

        • The Black Hand

          Dugan is not the entirety of DARPA.

          • Luka Mlinar

            This is true. No offense to any other people working at DARPA.

          • The Black Hand

            Every group has it’s dullard, just the way it is unfortunately. You had a valid point though. People would be amazed by the tech these groups don’t even fully research further. Let alone the really advanced stuff. A lot of our everday tech has came from them after them using it fir decades was my main point.

  • Keg Man

    i want to invest

  • Mayoo

    Where is a Kickstarter project when you need one!

  • Blaine Magee

    6.5 miles!?

  • Cesar

    This is clever! Hopefully people will invest in this and it becomes popular in every day use.