Batteries? Just reprogram it with radio waves!

October 24, 2017 | 00:00
Batteries? Just reprogram it with radio waves! Image: Technical University Delft, EWI faculty.
Batteries? Just reprogram it with radio waves! Image: Technical University Delft, EWI faculty.
In all of the (well-deserved!) hullaballoo around Technical University Delft winning the 2017 Solar Race it’s easy to forget other cutting-edge technology developed at that fantastic university in The Netherlands, the country of the bold & thrifty. Back in 2016 for example, a research initiative between University of Washington and TU Delft jointly created a microprocessor that can power itself through stray radio waves and receive programmable updates in the same fashion. While the CPU in question is a snail by modern standards (it’s a RISC-ish 16-bit micro thriftily clocked at 0.016 GHz), at least it works with no battery required. Try that with your 32-bit machine running at 1 GHz! Radio-wave powering of has significant implications for Internet of Things development and for ambient computing as a whole.

The WISP (Wireless Identification and Sensing Platform) project started more than 10 years ago at Intel Labs ran into the critical problem of building a programmable device that can survive off ambient energy for its read/write operations. Many years on, the Texas Instruments MSP430FR5969 arrived with its 64 KB of FRAM (ferroelectric RAM) for data storage along with 2 KB of conventional RAM. The good news: FRAM’s power consumption when writing data is less than 100 times than the NAND used on earlier WISP devices.

Dr Przemyslaw Pawelczak at TU Delft built further on the WISP platform, creating Wisent — a robust (he says) downstream communication protocol for CRFIDs that operates on top of the legacy UHF RFID communication protocol called EPC C1G2. The novelty of Wisent is its ability to adaptively change the frame length sent by the reader, based on the length throttling mechanism, to minimize the transfer times at varying channel conditions.

Pawelczak’s experiments show that Wisent allows transfer up to 16 times faster than a non-adaptive equivalent (i.e. single word length) device, at sub-meter distance. He reprogrammed a wireless CRFID with no battery on board, using RF energy, not only to wake up and power the device, but also to reprogram it.

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