NASA researchers create Wi-Fi-powered chip tech for wearables to improve battery life

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, in combination with researchers at UCLA, are 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 rather than the wearable generating the signal itself. According to Adrian Tang, chip designer at JPL and lead designer for the technology, not only does this drastically reduce power consumption, the solution also transmits Wi-Fi signal three times faster than traditional Wi-Fi.

Tang, who is working on the project with UCLA's M.C. Frank Chang, said the device started as NASA technology to steer beams electronically to scan planets. The chip works in binary code, absorbing incoming information as a "0" and transmitting its own data as a "1." Because the system is so simple, information transmits quickly and easily. In the absence of a Wi-Fi signal, Tang said the wearable device would revert to its own power.

"Just like your phone hands off from LTE to Wi-Fi, the chip would switch over to the reflector," he explained.

Still, there are challenges to overcome with the technology. Walls, floors, ceilings, furniture and other objects reflect Wi-Fi signals, making it necessary for the chip to detect which is the true Wi-Fi signal to transmit. The researchers said they have remedied this issue with a silicon chip meant to block out background signal reflections.

The team is also hoping to streamline the chip such that multiple users in a single space are able to use it without interference. In addition, the researchers are working to safely increase the distance of signal transmission.

"We're transmitting at six meters in the lab," said Tang. "We can do 50 meters, but that's really not safe."

Because 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 strong battery power. Researchers are working to minimize those energy strains, and Tang is optimistic that the solution will be commercialized. He said the Jet Propulsion Lab is currently looking for commercial partners.

"The physical components are ready to go," he explained, "but FCC approval and all of those things are left."

He added that while it's difficult to predict standards, he expects that the chip would need its own Wi-Fi standard eventually.

The researchers see their technology as potentially becoming useful for biomedical devices or even flash memory, eliminating the need for a USB.

For more:
- see this article
- see NASA's release

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