Fernando Fischmann

One Innovation we won’t be Seeing Soon: Over-the-air Charging

20 July, 2021 / Articles

Consumer electronics companies dream of a future where power cords and wireless charging surfaces are obsolete.

They dream of a time when charging will play out like this: You walk into a room, and your smartphone and other small gadgets automatically begin receiving power over the air from a nearby transmitter, perhaps embedded in a light fixture on the ceiling or plugged in under the desk like a Wi-Fi router.

Dream on.

For at least five years, companies have promised that we’re almost there. And in choreographed demonstrations, some have even shown that over-the-air phone charging is possible.

But we aren’t there yet. There are no chargers on the market to remotely power smartphones. And it’s unclear if there ever will be.

“There is no debate. To any sane person, over-the-air charging is the dream. It would be the most incredible experience,” said Jake Slatnick, chief executive of Aira, a wireless charging technology company. “The problem is, there are too many hurdles to really make it a practical thing.”

That hasn’t stopped some from trying. Since the year began, at least four companies have unveiled over-the-air-charging concepts.

Last month, the Chinese smartphone company Oppo showed off “air charging with no cables or charging stands.” In a demonstration video, the company’s smartphone concept with an expandable display appears to continue charging after being lifted from its pad. In January, the consumer electronics giant Xiaomi teased Mi Air Charge, which in videos looks like a large white power box meant to usher in a “true wireless charging era.” That same month, Motorola demoed a remote charging station dubbed “Motorola One Hyper.” Tokyo-based Aeterlink announced “Airplug,” which it claims can power devices up to 65 feet away.

Three of these companies drummed up media attention, although each says they don’t have plans to bring the product to market for smartphones. Others have abandoned over-the-air-charging projects altogether. Some researchers in the field question whether people will ever see the remote charging vision come to fruition.

Companies wishing to deploy such over-the-air charging hubs face several challenges, the most prominent of which is physics. The further away from a direct power source, the lower the charging efficiency. So even if your phone does receive some power at a distance, it might not be a meaningful amount.

There are also Federal Communications Commission guidelines limiting the amount of radio-frequency energy that can course through the air in your home. Too much could interfere with other gadgets or lead to various health issues.

Companies wishing to introduce air charging to the world also face an uphill battle against Qi, a wireless charging standard that’s already been adopted globally. The protocol enables chargers to release 15 watts of wireless power so that devices by Apple, Samsung, Huawei and others can slowly juice up when placed atop charging stations.

Still, today’s wireless charging hubs are far from perfect, leaving room for innovation to address these shortcomings. For example, if your phone isn’t perfectly aligned on the charger, it won’t work. Apple abandoned plans for an AirPower base in 2019 for that exact reason.

That makes the idea of over-the-air charging so attractive. Companies are looking for ways to make the smartphone charging process more convenient, so your phone doesn’t have to be near an outlet or strategically placed on a charging base.

One idea is a long-range wireless charger that screws into a lightbulb socket. It’s a product backed by the Israeli company Wi-Charge that would use infrared light to deliver two watts of power, enough to remain within safety limits. The firm showcased the tech at the CES global tech convention in 2020 and has won innovation awards for its remote charging capabilities.

But bringing that tech to smartphones “will take a few years” at least, according to Ori Mor, co-founder of Wi-Charge.

Mor’s idea is that a transmitter would be plugged into traditional power sources around a home, and convert electricity into infrared laser beams. Receivers embedded in smartphones would convert that light into power. But to work, smartphone makers would need to integrate the technology into chargers and phones. Companies in the space say that could happen. But smartphone product cycles typically take two years, so deployment would still be years away.

It’s unclear how great the demand for over-the-air charging is. Most people seem to be fine with Qi-enabled smartphones. The standard is fueling growth in the overall wireless charging market, which is valued at $4.5 billion by some estimates.

For now, Wi-Charge is focusing on its commercial business and using remote charging tech to power security cameras and smart shelves in U.S. retail stores. The first applications around the house will power smart-door locks in Dallas later this year, Mor said.

Wi-Charge is far from the only firm to work toward unleashing a truly wireless system.

San Jose, Calif.-based Energous Corporation believes radio-frequency-based charging is the future. Its platform, WattUp, supports power at-contact, as well as at-a-distance charging, the company claims. Still, it could be years before smartphones have chips that would allow it to happen.

“We view that this will come in phases. Contact is the current phase, followed by shorter over-the-air transmission,” said Steve Rizzone, CEO of Energous. “The third phase would be longer distances — up to 10 or 15 feet.”

If smartphones were to ever get over-the-air charging chips, batteries could get smaller. Who needs a bulky battery if phones could receive power 24/7? The shift would allow smartphone companies to explore new sizes and forms.

The long road toward over-the-air adoption in consumer electronics pushed WiTricity Corporation away from the category. The company showed that remote charging was possible at CES in 2016 but later pivoted toward powering electric vehicles over the air since consumer electronics wasn’t advancing fast enough, CEO Alex Gruzen says.

It’s also not entirely clear that the world needs over-the-air charging. With smartphone battery life continuing to improve, it may not make a significant impact if it were to ever happen. As a result of this reality, some companies have positioned themselves as a midway point.

Aira, for example, is a technology supplier that powers contact-charging surfaces for all corners of your life. The start-up’s “FreePower” technology system can be embedded into tables, desks and dashboards to turn them into charging pads capable of powering multiple devices at once. Typical contact chargers have a concentrated area of coils that must align with a smartphone to charge. Aira-powered surfaces use multiple coils across the surface and algorithms that track the devices being charged.

Aira’s platform currently powers the $199 Base Station Pro by Nomad, and the company is working with the auto-parts supplier Motherson to bring the tech to cars. The vision is that you’d collect bits of power at different points during your day, so you don’t have to think about charging.

“The dream was about freedom, convenience and invisibility,” said Simon McElrea, chief operating officer at Aira and former CEO of wireless charging company Sonic Energy. “This solves the problem from a different way.”

Washington Post


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