In a number of seminars at a lot of universities or industry interactions one of the hot topics these days is efficient wireless power transfer and the pressing need and desirability of it. It is even more interesting given that wireless power is nothing new at all. One of the earliest patents in this area was given in 1900 to the legendary Nikola Tesla (Patent number: 649621) and there has been a discussion on it ever since. Probably now is the time to really realize Tesla’s vision with the number of devices of daily usage growing rapidly.
[Left Nikola Tesla | Right Alanson Sample, Intel Engineer Demonstrating WREL (Image Source)]
Intel has been at present working on what they call the Wireless Resonant Energy Link, which is based on the work of some MIT physicists. In the image above, an Intel engineer is seen demonstrating powering of a 60 W bulb wirelessly. Doing so requires more power than what is needed to charge a laptop. The implications of this technology can be immense. However the adverse effects of such technology on humans remain to be seen but are not viewed as a major impediment to its development.
Another area that is being discussed extensively these days is claytronics, catoms or simply programmable matter. Let’s take a brief digression into this before coming back to the original topic.
Claytronics: Claytronics seems to be one of the most futuristic and promising application areas of the intersection of Robotics, Swarm Intelligence and Computer Science among others. Claytronics is a field concerning reconfigurable nanoscale robots (which are called Claytronic Atoms or Catoms) which can operate as a swarm and can be desgined to form much more complex elements and perform complex tasks. These sub-millmeter computers eventually would have the ability to move around, communicate with other computers, and even electrostatically attach to each other to allow the swarm to take different shapes.
Catoms also referred to as programmable matter could reconfigure to form almost any shape, take any color or texture. Some interesting speculations include that catoms could be morphed to form replicas of humans (for virtual meetings) as well. For a brief initiating idea have a look at the video below:
A senior researcher at Intel Jason Campbell has the following to say on just SOME possibilities that we could have in the future from programmable matter.
Think of a mobile device, My cell phone is too big to fit comfortably in my pocket and too small for my fingers. It’s worse if I try to watch movies or do my e-mail. But if I had 200 to 300 milliliters of catoms, I could have it take on the shape of the device that I need at that moment. For example, the catoms could be manipulated to create a larger keypad for text messaging. And when the device wasn’t being used, I could command it to form its smallest shape or even be a little squishy, so I can just drop it in my pocket.
Battery Powered Robots, An impediment to Research in SI based Robotic Systems:
There has been a lot of research going on swarm robotics. Taking just two examples, consider the work of James McLurkin of the CSAIL, MIT and the work at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland. A lot of James’ work can be seen here, with a number of videos and papers available for download.
In the video below, a swarm of 278 miniature e-puck robots move around. All of them are battery powered. Battery powered robots can not only be a headache but a severe research impediment as the size of the swarm increases.
It thus would be very desirable that the swarm is wirelessly powered.
So, in short a lot of work is being done in the above two fields but what is also required is an intersection of the two, and this is exactly what Travis Deyle of Georgia Tech and Dr Matt Reynolds of Duke have done. Their work, Surface based wireless power transmission and bidirectional communication for autonomous robot swarms. presented at the IEEE ICRA this year details the construction of a 60cmx60cm surface that provides wireless power and bi-directional communication to an initial swarm of 5 line following robots. Each robot had a power consumption of about 200 mW.
[Image Courtesy : Travis Deyle]
An actual robot looks like the following in close up.