This new technology could reduce the power needed to send information from wearables.
Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and UCLA are currently working on a Wi-Fi reflector chip that they say would drastically improve battery life in wearable devices by reducing the power needed to transmit or receive information to computers and cellular and Wi-Fi networks.
The chip uses existing wireless signals to reflect information back to a router or cell tower instead of the wearable generating the signal itself. According to Adrian Tang of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, not only does this drastically reduce power consumption, the solution also transmits Wi-Fi signal three times faster than traditional Wi-Fi.
Information transmitted to and from a wearable device is encoded as 1s and 0s, just like data on a computer. When incoming energy is absorbed by the circuit, that’s a “0,” and if the chip reflects that energy, that’s a “1.” This simple switch mechanism uses very little power and allows for the fast transfer of information between a wearable device and a computer, smartphone, tablet or other technology capable of receiving the data.
Tang, who is collaborating on the project with UCLA’s M.C. Frank Chang, says one of the challenges is that the wearable device isn’t the only object in a room that reflects signals. Keep in mind, there can be walls, floors, ceilings and furniture, among several other things. The chip in the wearable needs to differentiate between the real Wi-Fi signal and the reflection from the background. To overcome this, Tang and Chang developed a wireless silicon chip that constantly senses and suppresses background reflections, enabling the Wi-Fi signal to be transmitted without interference from surrounding objects.
The technologists have tested the system at distances of up to 20 feet. At about 8 feet, they achieved a data transfer rate of 330 megabits per second, which is about three times the current Wi-Fi rate, using about a thousand times less power than a regular Wi-Fi link.
“You can send a video in a couple of seconds, but you don’t consume the energy of the wearable device. The transmitter externally is expending energy – not the watch or other wearable,” Chang explains.
A base station and Wi-Fi service ares still required in order for the system to work. Since power is taken from the base station, computer, Wi-Fi or other network supporting the chip, the source will need to be plugged in or have long battery life. Researchers are working to minimize those energy limitations, but Tang is optimistic that the solution will be commercialized. For example, astronauts and robotic spacecraft could potentially use this technology to transmit images at a lower cost to their precious power supplies. This might also allow more images to be sent at a time.
The patent application for this technology is jointly owned by the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA and UCLA. You can read more about it here.