There’s a lot of promise built into the Internet of Things, which is, no doubt, exciting some VCs. But one of the questions that remains is how we’re going to power the billions of sensors that many believe will be necessary to collect useful data from those sensors. The two primary solutions of wiring the sensor or providing it with a battery both contain obvious drawbacks.
Engineers at the University of Washington are working on new technology called ‘ambient backscatter’ that would absorb the transmissions already in our environment, including radio waves, waves from wireless networks, and WiFi. The idea is either to repurpose those wireless signals either as a source of power or a communications medium.
Early testing with prototypes used ambient signals from a TV tower 6.5 miles away to have two devices communicate 1 kilobit of data per second at a distance of 2.5 feet. That’s a very modest start but interesting nonetheless. If the distances could be improved by 10X, I could see the technology being put in a home or office environment to collect data to be fed to a thermostat, for example, or be placed in buildings during construction.
Whether the technology pans out, any company that can figure out a powering system for objects that doesn’t require batteries or wires will make lots and lots and lots of money.