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"Ambient backscatter" enables wireless communication without batteries

The University of Washington's new "ambient backscatter" technology enables wireless communication by drawing power from background radio waves, which could have useful applications in future smartphones.
August 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.