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WiBotic PowerPad
An octocopter perches on WiBotic’s PowerPad for a charge. (WiBotic via Vimeo)

Seattle-based WiBotic today took the wraps off an integrated wireless charging pad for drones, as well as an onboard charger that weighs just 1.6 ounces.

The two new products are part of the University of Washington spinout’s strategy to provide a system for charging up robotic aerial vehicles as they go about their business, untouched by human hands.

The plug-and-play system is set up to send power wirelessly at short range from the pad’s transmitter to the charger’s receiver. Then the transmission is converted into electricity for a drone’s batteries. It’s an alternative to switching out batteries by hand, or hooking it up to a direct-contact charging system.

Until recently, WiBotic sold the system only as a development kit that had to be customized for specific applications. Based on the feedback from early-stage customers, the company saw an opportunity for a standardized solution.

“We built the PowerPad as a fairly simple, enclosed, weather-resilient system that gives folks a piece of infrastructure that solves their power problem right off the bat,” WiBotic CEO Ben Waters told GeekWire.

The 3-by-3-foot PowerPad looks a lot like a metal coffee table with a plastic lid. Waters said the cost ranges from a “couple of thousand to several thousand dollars,” depending on how weatherproof the pad needs to be. The pad can be connected to AC power, or to a DC source such as a solar-powered storage battery.

Waters said it takes one to two hours for the 100-watt PowerPad to provide a full charge to a drone ranging up to the size of a DJI Inspire, which is a popular choice for filmmakers. He said that a large industrial drone could be charged up in three to five hours, and that a more powerful version of the pad is currently under development.

The onboard charging system consists of a small antenna and mini circuit board that can easily be installed on a wide variety of drones or robots to work with the PowerPad. Although the pad does its work wirelessly, it can be connected via a cable to a network to let users reconfigure how it charges on the fly.

Waters sees the system as well-suited for aerial surveillance at corporate facilities, power plants, construction sites, rail lines, or oil and gas fields — particularly in environments where it’s inconvenient or hazardous to have humans on the scene.

“The drones can fly, land and charge, essentially autonomously,” he said.

The system can also charge up drones in the midst of monitoring emergency operations, or making deliveries over an extended area.

WiBotic onboard charger
WiBotic says the new onboard charger is about half the size of a previous-generation onboard charger, pictured above. (WiBotic via Vimeo)

Over the past couple of years, Amazon has patented grand concepts that call for installing charging stations on cars, boats and trucks, or even on streetlights. In contrast, WiBotic has designed its PowerPad is designed to blend in with the current landscape for drone operations.

Joel Ratner, director of the Innovation Lab at AERO Corp., is already a fan.

“WiBotic wireless charging technology is a key component in the AERO integrated aerial enterprise, and the WiBotic PowerPad performs beyond our expectations,” Ratner said in a news release. “And we couldn’t ask for a better development partner; the support our team has received from WiBotic is exceptional.”

The startup has its fans among investors as well. In April, WiBotic announced a $2.5 million funding round that brought total investment to $3.25 million.

Now the stakes are rising for the Seattle venture, which has 10 people on its payroll. Will PowerPad fly? We won’t have to wait long to find out: WiBotic is due to put its new products on display next week at the Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas.

Corrections for 12:20 p.m. PT: This report has been revised to clarify the capabilities of the current PowerPad, while also referencing a future version that’s under development. In addition, the caption for an image of an earlier-model WiBotic charging unit makes clear that the newly announced version is even smaller.

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