Powercast’s Ubiquity uses RF to charge devices wirelessly

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Powercast has unveiled its Ubiquity wireless power transmitters, which use radio frequency (RF) power to charge devices over the air.

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based company showed off its Ubiquity transmitter, an ultra-low-cost RF power transmitter, at CES 2023, the big tech trade show in Las Vegas this week.

If this sounds a little crazy, transferring electricity through the air to power an electronic gadget seems impossible. Nikola Tesla, the radio pioneer, tried unsuccessfully to do it in the early 1900s. Technical hurdles have plagued the attempts to do the same thing ever since.

But Powercast got started on the idea of ​​using radio frequency, which provides its own power upon making a connection between transmitter and receiver, back in 2003. The company said it has shipped over 10 million devices with more than 100 customers. The company has 79 patents. I wrote about wireless power as early as 2008, but all we’ve gotten are induction charging devices.

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Powercast’s Ubiquity demo module.

Designed to be an economical RF wireless transmitter, Powercast has lowered the barrier to entry where RF wireless power can actually become ubiquitous with multiple RF transmitters covering every home, the company said.

“Powercast’s vision is to see a low-cost RF transmitter in every room in every house,” said Charles Goetz,
CEO at Powercast, in a statement. “Much like Wi-Fi routers, a home will need multiple RF transmitters to provide enough RF coverage where convenient, contactless, ‘set it and forget it’ wireless charging becomes a reality. So, we slashed costs and are sharing our Ubiquity design via a reference design with a low $5 bill of material cost, or an embeddable module, that lets manufacturers easily incorporate RF transmitting capability into their own products to accelerate RF transmitter networks in homes.”

Powercast’s over-the-air wireless power architecture has two sides. It has a transmitter that sends RF over the air, and it has a receiver embedded in end devices which harvests that RF from the air and converts it into DC (direct current) to both communicate data, and power devices.

On the transmitter side, Powercast’s Ubiquity will come in several forms, all able to both charge RF-enabled devices and communicate data back and forth with them throughout a home.

Manufacturers have two options to turn their own products – such as home appliances, TVs, game systems, computer monitors or AI-enabled home assistants – into Ubiquity RF transmitters. A licensable reference design lets manufacturers to integrate just the electronics needed onto their own circuit boards for $5 or less bill-of-material (BOM) cost.

And it also has an easy-to-integrate, drop-in embeddable module which contains all the electronics and
hardware needed. Manufacturers will add a power supply and antenna. Powercast will work with manufacturers on an antenna design that best fits their specific product size.

Powercast also created its standalone Ubiquity transmitter combining its embeddable module with an antenna to show at CES. Powercast will produce this portable-speaker-sized transmitter.

On the receiving side, manufacturers can embed Powercast’s tiny Powerharvester PCC110 receiver chip and a small antenna into their end devices for around $1 to enable them to work with an RF transmitter – either Powercast’s standalone Ubiquity, or RF-transmitting products created using the Ubiquity embeddable module or reference design.

Ubiquity standalone RF wireless transmitter.

This wireless power-over-distance architecture can charge low-power devices with continuous, reliable, background trickle charging. End device examples include TV remotes, electric toothbrushes, keyboards and mice, game controllers, earbuds, headphones, smart watches, fitness bands, hearing aids, clocks, electric shavers, home automation devices and many more devices.

Powercast’s Jason Gill, director of R&D, said in a statement, “The volumes are in the consumer electronics market, but it’s also price sensitive. In response to these manufacturers’ requests for a sustainable, ultra-low-cost wireless charging solution, our engineers perfected the highly-efficient, single-antenna Ubiquity design that can both transmit power and communicate data. Manufacturers can create environmentally-friendly, RF-powered ecosystems using either rechargeable batteries or no batteries, both of which eliminate disposable battery e-waste and battery replacement hassles.”

The Ubiquity transmitter can output up to one watt (3W EIRP) and automatically charges multiple RF-enabled devices that come into its charging zone – no charging mats needed. Power-hungry devices charge faster within several feet of the transmitter, while ultra-low-power devices like IoT sensors can charge up to 120 feet.

“The far-field wireless power transmitter semiconductor market will soon see a steep growth trajectory
with most revenue coming from the consumer market,” said Phil Solis, research director at IDC, in a statement. “On the receiver side, the consumer market will be the largest segment by 2024 and the vast majority of revenue by 2025. Low-cost solutions are necessary to enable the many devices in the home that can benefit from wireless power.”

The licensable Ubiquity reference design is expected in February 2023. The Ubiquity module and transmitter are expected in June 2023.

How it works

A transmitter sends RF energy over the air to a receiver chip embedded in a device, which converts it to DC to recharge its batteries or directly power the device. This remote charging technology behaves like Wi-Fi where enabled devices automatically charge when within range of a power transmitter.

Regulations in the United States and Canada limit the amount of transmittable power. Under the FCC Part 15, power is limited to four watts EIRP, and Powercast broadcasts approximately three watts EIRP.

A tiny Powerharvester receiver, embedded in systems or devices, harvests RF energy sent over the air from either a dedicated transmitter, such as Powercast’s Powercaster or PowerSpot, or from anticipated RF sources such as UHF RFID readers or NFC POS readers. The embedded Powerharvester then converts the RF to DC to either directly power that batteryless device or recharge its batteries.

The company said the charging is safe. A typical mobile phone user will receive far more RF energy from their own mobile phone than they will from a properly installed Powercast transmitter. The charging devices can go through walls.

Typical induction charging solutions like charging pads and electric toothbrushes require that the power source and receiving device be in very close proximity to one another to transfer power efficiently, usually within millimeters, which is essentially zero distance. These types of solutions typically require special alignment and charging pads or cradles. Powercast’s RF-based technology provides power-over distance to one or more devices and does not directly compete with induction-based charging technologies.

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