Ericsson uses laser beams to wirelessly power 5G mmWave base station

In the demo, an optical beam using PowerLight’s laser technology was able to transmit hundreds of watts of power over hundreds of meters over the air to power an Ericsson 5G base station. (Ericsson)

Ericsson is claiming a world-first in a proof-of-concept that used laser beam technology to power a 5G base station completely wirelessly, without any electric grid connection or on-site power generation.

The demo took place in Seattle and used optical beaming with partner PowerLight Technologies. Laser-based optical beaming technology converts electricity into high-intensity light that is captured and transformed to electricity at the radio base station to power it wirelessly.

Part of the aim is to address a major challenge in deploying new cell sites - getting power to the sites by connecting to the electric grid. Access to power and the related process can be time consuming and costly, or difficult because of location or geography, particularly as networks become more distributed.

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“The ability to safely transfer power across distances without having to be connected to the power grid eliminates one of the big obstacles we have when building new cell sites,” said Kevin Zvokel, head of networks for Ericsson North America. “The time savings and flexibility gains will make this an attractive solution for our customers.”

In the U.S., Ericsson this summer snagged its largest contract ever – an $8.3 billion 5G deal with Verizon.

Ericsson’s Patrik Jansson showcased new the demo in a video.

He described the setup: where a small PowerLight power distribution unit (PDU) sits below the Ericsson base station – in this case it used an Ericsson Streetmacro 6701 5G millimeter wave unit. Further up at the top of the pole sits the PV (photovoltaic) receiver. At the far end of the parking lot, in an open garage is the power beam transmitter.

A screenshot of the demo video shows the PowerLight distribution box below an Ericsson 5G mmWave base station. (Ericsson)

The power beam transmitter converts electricity into photons (laser beam), which is sent over to the PV receiver and converts the photons back into usable electricity. That electricity is then stored in the PDU box below the base station.

In the demo, an optical power beam using PowerLight’s laser technology was able to transmit hundreds of watts of power over hundreds of meters over the air. The beam also is invisible and silent.

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The partners said it marks a major milestone as they look toward next generations where the product could transmit kilowatts of energy over even longer distances, such as kilometers.  That is under development now and will be commercially available in the next few years, said Claes Olsson, executive chairman at PowerLight, in the announcement.

Safety of the system

Showing the power could be distributed safely was another key aim of the demo.

Jansson said one way to think of it is the power beam that’s transmitting in the middle of the systems has an invisible cylinder protecting it (dubbed a safety ring), and if anyone or anything interrupts that beam transmission it shuts off immediately – responding within milliseconds. Even if the beam is temporarily interrupted the base station stays up and running as the site’s back-up battery takes over to make sure the mobile site remains reliable.

To showcase this, Ericsson waved a pole in front of the PV receiver – an LED light turned red for a few seconds to show that the power distribution unit turned off as the laser beam was interrupted (with the 5G base station still on) before blinking green again as it turned back on signaling the PDU was again transmitting after the pole cleared out of the way.

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“The power beam technology gives us at Ericsson the flexibility to deploy radios where not possible before,” said Jansson.   

Aside from deploying street-level base stations more quickly, Ericsson envisions leveraging wireless optical power for temporary deployments, like during an emergency or events where there will be dense crowds for a certain period, such as music festivals or sporting events. Without the need to wire into a power source, it could also support connected machines like automated guided vehicles and drones or IoT-sensors and lamps.

“Most people are aware that wireless charging technology is available today for small electronic devices, such as cell phones and watches,” added PowerLight’s Olsson in a statement. “This breakthrough demonstration, which utilized the best innovative technology from PowerLight and Ericsson, underscores the major leaps we have made recently toward the commercialization of safe, wireless power transmission for larger-scale systems.”

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PowerLight’s products have also completed testing with the Department of Defense.

In August Ericsson introduced a trio of new radios for streetscapes (partnering with smart-city infrastructure company Ubicquia) to reduce install time and the need for multiple siting permits in dense urban areas including its StreetMacro 6705 mmWave base station.

The Swedish vendor remained a market leader in the global network infrastructure space in the first half of 2021 when it saw year over year sales jump $1.46 billion, according to a new report from MTN Consulting. That compares to rival Nokia, which was up $1.01 billion, while competitor Huawei saw a $1.48 billion year over year drop in telco network infrastructure sales for the first six months of the year.

Overall, MTN said vendor revenues for network infrastructure rose 5.1% in the second quarter, with collective revenues of $110.4 billion for the first half of 2021 - up 7.4% from the first half of 2020.