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Russell Hannigan and reflector array
Intellectual Ventures’ Russell Hannigan explains how a metamaterials-based reflector array antenna can focus a microwave beam on a power receiver. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Wireless power transmission has been a dream since the days of Nikola Tesla, but Intellectual Ventures is adding a twist to make it so, and make it profitable.

The twist is a little something called metamaterials, a technology that has already spawned several spin-outs from the Bellevue-based company. Russell Hannigan, senior director of business development for Intellectual Ventures’ Invention Science Fund, says a decision on how to commercialize the technology is just “a few months away.”

Right now, the company is working with a proof-of-concept setup that beams about 8 watts’ worth of microwaves across a lab space to light up an array of LED lights. But researchers expect to scale up the system to power devices at distances of 160 feet (50 meters) or more.

“Our driving application – the one that’s the most lucrative – is drones,” Hannigan said.

Free-flying drones are typically limited to about 20 minutes of flight time, but if you could beam enough power to keep it in the air, they could hover indefinitely. That’d be an attractive feature for folks who use drones to monitor security perimeters, inspect infrastructure ranging from railways to cellphone towers, or just capture awesome video from overhead.

“It seems like a perfect confluence of technology and applications and interest,” Hannigan said.

Beamed-power lights
An array of LED bulbs light up with the power from a microwave energy source. Intellectual Ventures’ Russell Hannigan shows how blocking the beamed microwaves shuts off the power. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
Beamed-power system
This panoramic image shows the full beamed-power setup. University of Washington engineering professor Matt Reynolds and Intellectual Ventures’ Wayt Gibbs, Rita Rogers and Russell Hannigan stand between the transmitter at left and the power-receiving array of lights at right. Click on the image for a larger version. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

How metamaterials make it so

Wireless power, also known as direct energy transfer or DET, is a relatively new tech frontier for metamaterials – electronic hardware configurations that make it possible to redirect electromagnetic waves in exotic ways.

Metamaterials made their initial media splash as a theoretical way to create “invisibility shields,” by bending specific wavelengths of light around the object you’d want to conceal. The Harry Potter angle was irresistible, but the commercial applications of metamaterials have taken a different course.

Intellectual Ventures’ past spin-outs in the field include Kymeta, which focuses on flat-panel antennas; Echodyne, which works on drone-friendly radar scanners; and Evolv, which is building security scanners. Yet another metamaterials venture based in Bellevue, Pivotal Communications, can trace its lineage to the Invention Science Fund.

The lab’s power-beaming system shoots microwaves at a metamaterials-based reflective array the size of a chalkboard, which focuses the waves on their intended target. In real-world applications, the reflector’s focus can be shifted electronically to track a moving target without having to reposition the antenna.

The system could also be adapted to create wall panels capable of recharging all the electronic devices in a room wirelessly, as described in a research paper that came out last October.

One of the authors of that paper, the University of Washington’s Matt Reynolds, is also a consultant for the new project that Intellectual Ventures has in mind. Reynolds said today’s wireless charging systems – for instance, the cradle that provides the juice for an electric toothbrush – tend to take advantage of electromagnetic induction, which only works over a short range.

“In order to get longer-range wireless power … you need to use fundamentally different physics,” he said.

The wireless power landscape

Several other Seattle-area ventures are trying to push the envelope on wireless power in different ways.

Bellevue-based Ossia, for example, has created a power transmission station that could charge up cellphones and other mobile devices from up to 6 feet away. Seattle-based WiBotic is developing a line of resonant-induction hot spots for recharging robots and drones at roughly the same range.

Kent-based LaserMotive, meanwhile, has been working on laser-beamed power systems for the past decade. In 2009, the company won a $900,000 NASA prize in a robot-climbing competition, and kept a drone flying for 48 hours straight during a demonstration for Lockheed Martin in 2012. More recently, LaserMotive has been looking into power transmission via fiber-optic cable as well.

Intellectual Ventures’ metamaterials-based system has some distinct advantages: The microwave beam can be focused and redirected with relatively high efficiency, and with no moving parts. But there are challenges as well.

Although it’s less hazardous to walk through a microwave beam than through a megawatt-scale laser beam, the full-scale power system will still have to incorporate safety measures to limit direct exposure in accordance with federal safety guidelines. Reynolds said there’d likely be a perimeter-monitoring system that would switch off the beam if someone wandered too close.

For now, Intellectual Ventures’ business development team is looking at high-end applications for the technology. So don’t expect the system to be powering up your backyard drone anytime soon. “This is not an ‘under the Christmas tree’ kind of deal,” Hannigan said.

But if researchers can get the system to work at higher frequencies down the road, that could open the way to smaller devices that cost less and are capable of beaming out more power. And that’s when power beams just might make Tesla’s wireless dream come true.

“We very strongly believe that you’ve got to get ahead of the market,” Hannigan said. “You have to be able to control your own destiny by getting something out there, our first-generation products, and then using that as a springboard.”

Clarification for 2:36 p.m. PT Feb. 24: We’ve updated our reference to Ossia’s wireless power technology to reflect how it works more accurately. For details on Ossia’s Cota technology, check out this description on the company’s website.

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