The Next Wireless Revolution Is Coming (No, Not 5G)

Replacing wired connections with wireless ones is not a new idea. It dates back to the discovery of radio waves by Heinrich Hertz in 1888, and was first made practical by Guglielmo Marconi when he enabled telegraph signals to be transmitted through the air. Just prior to World War I, Nikola Tesla built a huge tower and power station out on the edge of Long Island with the intention of broadcasting free wireless electric power for all. In the 1950s, the first TV remote controls were physically wired before infrared (IR) and radio frequency (RF) technologies allowed the connecting cable to disappear. In the 1970s, landline telephones became cordless, and a decade later wireless cellular phones appeared. In the 1990s, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth appeared, untethering personal computers from the internet, headphones from music playback devices, printers from PCs, etc., etc., etc.

Each one of these wired-to-wireless advances radically altered society. And we are now on the verge of the next such “cableless” revolution: ubiquitous wireless power.

We are, of course, getting more and more familiar with wireless charging. You’ve been wireless charging your electric toothbrush via magnetic induction for years. Apple’s adoption of Qi for the iPhone X a year ago has ended the smartphone near-field induction charging wars and created a universal standard. Soon, Qi wireless charging will likely be as common for smartphones and other low-power accessories as wireless headphones as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth is now. There already are a growing number of portable Qi batteries, for instance. This is all an evolutionary improvement as the charging stations that wirelessly charge devices must be powered up by plugging into an electrical outlet.

But Qi near-field charging is merely one leg on a centipede of wireless power possibilities. For instance, the first electric cars capable of being charged wirelessly are expected this fall, via electronic vehicle (EV) induction technology from companies such as Plugless and Qualcomm. An even more ambitious EV idea is charging cars while they’re moving at high speed along a highway via charging strips imbedded in the roadway. This technology has been tested by companies like Qualcomm and Israeli company ElectReon. Potential applications could be charging an electric bus along specific routes. Infrastructure and implementation costs must be overcome, but the charge-while-you-drive technology is an attractive concept that will likely get the attention of governments and industry in coming years. A less infrastructure-intensive option is being rolled out in China, where an increasing number of electric buses can quickly recharge at stations while passengers get on and off via supercapacitor technology from CRRC.

But perhaps the most radical wireless charging technology is coming soon from another Israeli company, Wi-Charge. Using IR, the company says it is able to transmit up to 3 watts of power from a ceiling or shelf-based transmitter to low-power battery-powered Wi-Charge compatible/enabled devices up to 15 feet away and within 90 degrees.

Practically, a Wi-Charge system could keep a smartphone powered indefinitely and, perhaps more importantly, eliminate the need to replace or recharge batteries in smart home devices. Smart locks, smart and dumb Bluetooth speakers, door/window sensors and Wi-Fi security cameras all remain continually powered as if they were plugged into an AC outlet—except they aren’t, which removes most placement limitations. According to Wi-Charge, transmitters and receivers speak to each other to ascertain location and device charging needs. As a result, a device can be charged or powered while in motion—Wi-Charge’s demos involve powering electric trains around a plastic track. One of the system’s limitations comes from “line of sight,” since the technology operates on IR, just like your TV remote control.

The company indicates it will license out its technology and sell radio modules as opposed to manufacturing products. According to the company, first charge products are likely to include ceiling lighting transmitter fixtures, Qi wireless charging pads, shelf transmitters, dongles and smartphone cases. Talks with potential partners are underway, according to the company. To seed the market, Wi-Charge says it plans to install transmitters in public locations such as restaurants and coffee shops.

With these and other emerging wireless power technologies, it’s easy to imagine a future world in which AC outlets are rare, reserved for high-powered stationary equipment such as TVs and appliances, while all other smaller low-power devices just run and run and run without ever needing to be plugged in for recharging.

Somewhere Nikola Tesla is smiling.