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Researchers reveal new Wi-Fi tech that can power battery-free IoT devices

Wi-fi backscatter is a new technology that could potentially power battery-free devices for use in the Internet of Things.
August 11, 2014

We’ve written numerous articles about the potential of the Internet of Things, and how it could eventually bring forth a world where billions of sensors and smart devices interact with one another and connect with the Internet to make our lives a little better, a little easier. Of course one major hurdle to the IoT revolution is powering all these gizmos, though a team of researchers at the University of Washington may have come up with an innovative solution to this problem.

The team recently invented a new technology called Wi-Fi backscatter, which it has since detailed in a paper it plans to formally publish later this month. So what exactly is Wi-FI backscatter? Simply put, Wi-Fi backscatter is able to communicate with battery-free RF-powered devices by either reflecting or not reflecting a Wi-Fi signal between a router and another device like a laptop. This interruption in signal can be read by special software and interpreted in a way similar to binary code.

“Once we are able to reflect [or not] reflect Wi-Fi signals, you can think of the functionality like a signal mirror,” researcher Bryce Kellogg revealed to CNET. “I can send you messages in binary by reflecting the sun at you (1) or not (0). Wi-Fi backscatter works in a similar way.”

The team has not only detailed how this all would work, it also tested the technology using an ultra-low power tag prototype with an antenna and circuitry that can connect to a variety of electronic devices while consuming negligible amounts of power. The team believes that this tech could eventually be used as a low-power solution for devices like smartwatches or fitness devices tracking your morning activity. Even more exciting, the tech could theoretically be applied to battery-free sensors and other IoT-related devices.

Here’s a video that explains the concept in a bit more detail:

In addition to their paper and early demos, the engineer team also notes they plan to explore the idea of forming a company that could further develop and promote Wi-Fi backscatter technology. Obviously the tech is still in its early days, but the potential here is mind-blowing. What do you think of the tech, a major game-changer? How do you feel about the Internet of Things in general?