Meet the WISP: Radio-powered computer doesn't need batteries

As we become increasingly connected to everything from fitness trackers to our homes, one constant remains — something has to power all these smart devices.

But imagine electronic gadgets that require no battery whatsoever.

While we may not have reached the point of a battery-free smartphone, researchers at the University of Washington have created a tiny computer that works without a battery.

CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener looks at what they're calling "the WISP."

If there's no battery, where does the power come from?

The WISP — or Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform — is a tiny little computer chip, about the size of a quarter.

And it's powered entirely by radio energy.

The small chip has two wing-like antennas coming out of either side which can pick up radio energy, and use that to run the device.

Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform (WISP)

No batteries required. (University of Washington)

And there's a lot of that energy around us, all the time. It comes from cellphone towers, Wi-Fi routers and Bluetooth devices, for example, not to mention over-the-air television and radio signals.

And the idea here is that if you put together all the wireless energy from all these sources, it's enough to power small electronic devices.

The WISP in particular harvests energy from RFID (radio-frequency identification) readers. This is the same wireless technology that you find in a lot of key-card security systems, where you tap an ID card to get into a building.

And the small amount of energy that's beamed from an RFID reader is enough to power a tiny little computer like the WISP.

Where might we see these battery-free computers?

University of Washington research Aaron Parks

Aaron Parks is a University of Washington researcher working on the WISP project. (University of Washington)

Aaron Parks, the lead developer on the WISP project, said there are lots of places you might want a computer, but where a battery-operated device would be impractical.

For example, he suggested WISP devices could be implanted directly into the concrete structures of buildings to monitor their health.

"We could put strain sensors on the WISP, and we could plant it into the building materials and do this kind of continuous monitoring without needing to extract those WISPs and replace batteries," he said.

He also suggested this same approach could be used for very low-power electronics — things like a wrist-mounted fitness tracker, for instance.

What are the limitations of these battery-free devices?

When you're trying to build a tiny computer that runs entirely on harvested power, you run into two big challenges.

First, while there is a lot of wireless energy around us, it's still a lot less than what you'd find in a smartphone battery, or what you can get by plugging into the wall.

So at this point, these could only be used for low-power devices — fitness trackers, small cameras or embedded sensors, for example.

The other challenge is that the amount of power fluctuates, depending on where you are. In the same way you get better radio reception in some places than others, the amount of power a battery-free device can harvest depends on where it is. So technologists need to build systems that can cope with these fluctuations in power.

How might the WISP fit into our homes?

Parks says if we imagine a near-future where more and more of our homes and streets and cities have sensors and small computers embedded in them, we're going to need to figure out how to power all that stuff.

And that's where something like the WISP might come in — especially as more of our home devices become part of the Internet of Things, and require a power source.

The Internet of Things

Devices like the WISP could provide a solution to the problem of constantly replacing batteries. (Image Source: usablenet)

"If you have a hundred devices in your home that need batteries replaced every year, you're going to be replacing batteries every few days," said Parks.

"So the WISP and our other battery-less technologies are kind of enabling a future where maybe that doesn't have to happen."

What's next for battery-free computing?

At this point, a lot of what Aaron Parks and his colleagues are building with the WISP is still in the labs. 

For example, he said they're working on technology that could allow your phone to make an emergency call, even if its battery is completely dead.

But the big thing they're working on now is the ability to not only power devices wirelessly, but to install software wirelessly too.

That's especially important if we're talking about a tiny computer inside your body, or buried deep inside a concrete wall. 

You don't want to have to have to open up a wall, or perform surgery, every time you want to run a software update.

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