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UK project will explore ways to control and charge robots remotely

30 June 2015

A team of academic and industrial research partners is taking part in a project to develop ways to wirelessly 'beam' power into robots and other digital systems.

Image: Shutterstock

The £1 million SWIFT project is the first collaborative UK effort to develop systems that can simultaneously transfer information and power across wireless networks.

Wireless power transfer dates back to Nikola Tesla, who experimentally demonstrated wireless energy transfer (WET) in the late 19th century, and short-range wireless charging of mobile phones and other gadgets is about to become standard.

However, the new project will focus on the possibility of longer-range wireless charging, exploiting recent advances in electronically-steered antennas that make it feasible to power robots safely over a significant distance using a microwave beam. 

Researchers at The University of Leeds, King’s College London and Lancaster University are involved in the project, which is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Professor Ian Robertson, of the University of Leeds’ School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, said: “This is a very exciting opportunity to demonstrate that steerable microwave beams can safely transmit significant power over long distances, with advanced new techniques combining expertise in information theory, signal processing, wireless networking and microwave engineering.”

A key aim of the new project is to build working prototypes of wirelessly powered robots, which will be fabricated in the new EPSRC National Facility for Innovative Robotic Systems at Leeds.

The SWIFT project is supported by leading UK industry partners including Thales, the Mobile VCE, Instrumentel and Lime Microsystems along with prominent international partners from Princeton University and the National University of Singapore.

Professor Zhiguo Ding, from Lancaster University’s School of Computing and Communications, who will lead the project, said: “This project is the first interdisciplinary initiative to promote innovation and technology transfer between academia and industry in the UK for one of the most challenging and most important problems in future communication networks.”

Wireless communication systems employ electromagnetic waves in order to transfer information. Until recently, the information transmission capacity of these signals has been the main focus of research and applications, neglecting their energy content. However, thanks to recent advances in silicon technology, the energy requirements of embedded systems have been significantly reduced, making electromagnetic waves a potentially useful source of energy.

Professor Robertson added: “Wireless power transfer to robots provides many exciting opportunities: in the 1960s, Raytheon demonstrated that a large model helicopter could be remotely powered by a microwave beam and elevated to 50 feet. However, there are many challenges that need to be addressed to make such an approach economical and safe.”

Professor Arumugam Nallanathan, Professor in Wireless Communications at  King’s College London, said: “This research will bring significant benefits to a range of applications including environmental monitoring, tactical surveillance, intelligent transportation, wireless healthcare, future factories, and smart cities."

The SWIFT project will run for three years.

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