Researchers develop battery-free communication tech for Internet of Things sensors

Thinking ahead to a world where hundreds of millions of wireless sensors are embedded in consumer electronics and mobile health devices, researchers are developing a new technology that would use existing wireless and TV radio waves to power sensors without batteries.

Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a new technology, which they call "ambient backscatter," that will allow devices to communicate with each other by reflecting the existing radio signals around them. The researchers built small, battery-free devices with antennas that can detect, harness and reflect a TV signal, which then is picked up by other devices.

The upshot is that such technology could power sensors embedded in wireless devices, enabling more sensors to be deployed. But right now it is not  practical for actually transmitting information: the system can only deliver data at about 1 Kbps over a distance of 2.5 feet outdoors and 1.5 feet indoors. In other words, it won't be sending massive data packets anytime soon. However, the researchers hope to advance their work and have the technology to power sensors placed permanently on any structure. 

"Our design avoids the expensive process of generating radio waves; backscatter communication is orders of magnitude more power-efficient than traditional radio communication. Further, since it leverages the ambient RF signals that are already around us, it does not require a dedicated power infrastructure as in traditional backscatter communication," according to the researchers, Vincent Liu, Aaron Parks, Vamsi Talla, Shyam Gollakota, David Wetherall and Joshua Smith.

The number of machine-to-machine connections worldwide is expected to more than triple by 2016 compared to 2011, according to a November 2012 report from IMS Research. According to the report, the total number of global M2M connections will hit around 326 million by 2016, up from the 107 million in 2011.

For more:
- see this release
- see this Wired UK article
- see this GigaOM article

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