“The company has gone through a major transformation,” Richard Gustafson, PowerLight’s president and CEO, told GeekWire today.
The Kent, Wash.-based company was founded a decade ago and first made its mark at NASA’s Power Beaming Challenge in 2009 as the winner of a $900,000 prize.
Back then, LaserMotive used laser beams to transmit power to a cable-climbing robot. After several years of behind-the-scenes work, PowerLight is now working with commercial and military customers to perfect a system that can transmit power in the form of laser light to underwater robotic vehicles, drones in the air, and industrial installations on the ground.
“It has a chance to transform a number of industries,” Gustafson said of the technology. Beamed power provides the means to “fill a very large gap in operations,” he said.
The first step involves a fiber-based transmission system for laser light, known as “Power Over Fiber.” Gustafson said PowerLight showed the U.S. Navy how the system could provide power for an underwater vehicle during a demonstration this week in Maryland.
A separate Navy project focused on how fiber-optic cable could provide a tethered communications link for an aerial drone. Commercial enterprises are also looking into the technology, for applications that could range from aerospace and telecommunications to disaster response and border security.
“We are selling Power Over Fiber today,” Gustafson said. “In terms of the commercial applications … right now, this technology is new enough that engineers are still getting used to it.”
Gustafson declined to name names, at least for the time being. “We’ve got customers who don’t want their competitors to know they’re going down this path,” he said. In the past, PowerLight (as LaserMotive) has worked with partners including Lockheed Martin, Airbus, Ascending Technologies, Teledyne and Ericsson.
By mid-2018, PowerLight plans to take the next big step: demonstrating that a safe method for free-space power transmission is ready for real-world applications. The company has already shown that 400 watts of power can be transmitted wirelessly over a distance of 1 kilometer (0.6 miles), using a near-infrared laser. Gustafson said the team is working up to the kilowatt range.
He said PowerLight’s free-space transmission system will include a “virtual enclosure” sensor system to ensure that the laser stays on target for safe operation, with automatic shutoff if the beam is blocked. Over-the-air power beaming could charge up drones as well as ground equipment in hard-to-reach locations.
Gustafson is grateful for the years that were spent out of the public spotlight. “It gave us a chance to really understand ourselves what it’s going to take to move this technology forward,” he said. But now he thinks the technology, and the potential markets, are ready for prime time.
“It couldn’t be a better time to come out of stealth mode,” he told GeekWire.
In April, the privately held company reported raising $1.5 million in a funding round, and Gustafson said fundraising efforts will continue in the new year. He declined to provide details about the company’s finances, other than to say that PowerLight is funded by founders and angel investors.
Further clues can be gleaned from word that PowerLight is bringing on three new advisers: Barrie Graham, an advisory director at WR Hambrecht + Co.; James Judson, a telecom industry executive and venture capitalist who co-founded Eagle River Investments; and Kent Williams, an investment adviser with Vista Asset Management LLC. Gustafson acknowledged that the advisers have stakes in the company.
Tom Nugent, who was LaserMotive’s co-founder as well as its first president and CEO, serves as PowerLight’s chief technology officer. Claes Olsson, a veteran technology executive, is the company’s chairman of the board. Gustafson said the company currently has fewer than 25 employees — and will be looking for more.
PowerLight isn’t the only venture looking into power-beaming systems. In 2015, Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries demonstrated a microwave transmitter that sent 10 kilowatts’ worth of power across 500 meters (1,640 feet).
Closer to home, Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures has been experimenting with microwave beamers that make use of metamaterials. Two other Seattle-area startups, WiBotic and Ossia, are taking different approaches to wireless power for drones, robots and mobile devices.