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WISP computer has no battery, gets power wirelessly from radio waves

We’ve been hearing for years about all the ways the “internet of things” is supposed to revolutionize the world. When is that supposed to happen, though? Sure, you can get a few smart-things in your home, but the omnipresent network of sensors and remote systems we’ve been promised are still a fantasy largely because of the crummy state of battery technology. A team of researchers from the University of Washington’s Sensor Lab have come up with a way we might be able to get around that with a device called the WISP. It’s a tiny computer that doesn’t need a battery.

The WISP (or Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform) sidesteps all the issues with finding wired power and adding bulky batteries to smart objects by harvesting power from radio waves. It doesn’t even need any special wireless power equipment; just a regular off-the-shelf RFID transmitter. The WISP can pull enough power out of thin air to power a modest processor, but it’s not going to compete with your computer or even your smartphone. The creators say it’s got about as much processing power as the Fitbit — enough to run sensors and transmit data.

That modest amount of processing power still makes it the most powerful battery-free computer ever developed by an order of magnitude. The fact that it also has communication capabilities is also a huge step forward. The way it does this is quite clever. It backscatters the incoming radio signals to communicate with a series of blips, a bit like Morse code. The team says this still has roughly the same bandwidth as Bluetooth Low Energy. it can even be programmed wirelessly.

WISP might find use in architecture and construction, allowing sensors to be embedded in buildings to monitor structural stability in the event of a natural disaster. It could also be used outdoors in agriculture to monitor crops. Fitness bands are a possibility, of course, but a device like the WISP might even find its way into phones as a sort of emergency backup calling module that works even when the battery is dead.

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