We don’t need no stinkin’ wall power as CES shows off the power and promise of usable long-range wireless charging

While wireless charging has been around for some time (like charging my iPhone in my Toyota’s center console), CES is showcasing real power at real distances measured in meters, not centimeters. At one booth I saw an infrared transmitter charging a few automatic blinds six meters away across the booth, and toy trains running around the place that had no power plugs at all: they are all charged wirelessly.

It’s not super-efficient (10% right now), but with remote power applications (like LED lighting, game console controllers, etc.) consuming lower amounts of power, this technology can change how we wire – or don’t wire – gobs of stuff in the future. Also, you won’t need tons of batteries to replace every year. Wi-Charge, for example, figures a single transmitter can help to avoid replacing around 5,000 batteries over the lifespan of the unit. You’ll still have costs, but they figure it amounts to less than $1 per year to charge a phone. And you can get it right now … well, at least if you’re a large manufacturer. But it’s coming soon to you.

For security, though, this means an attacker could conceivably place lower power transmitters pointing around a location to rogue sensors slurping up information and keep them powered up and transmitting silently for amazing amounts of time. Since the power transmitters operate in the infrared spectrum, as long as there is line of sight between the sensors, you have an ad hoc network. And since the power transmitters sync with multiple endpoints needing power, it can be multiple sensors powered by a single base station. It’s still limited by distance, but the range will get better in the future, not worse.

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At previous years’ CES we saw concepts of car chargers, but they had to be very close and looked daunting to buy and implement. But they’re getting better. Several vendors are highlighting much more practical car chargers (both wireless and wired) that can charge much more efficiently, and the price is dropping.

One vendor, Nimbus, figured out a way to way to run significantly more power at distances of many meters, and highlighted a running electric motor on the receiving sensor end. While this supplier of higher power at higher distances is more of a scrappy startup, they have some demoes here that are pretty impressive.

For the consumer market, pricing is super sensitive, so if your remote charger costs five times what it seeks to replace, it’s a nonstarter. But as the combination of power requirements of the remote device drop, and efficiencies and scale of manufacture increase, expect to see way more wireless charge devices appearing.

One application that has been getting traction is supply-chain and warehouse management, where their electric-powered material-handling vehicles (think “forklifts”) proceed along a set path to move material but return to a charging base when at rest between operations. While this could’ve been handled by wiring a bunch of dedicated charging stations, if there’s a wireless charging option that could deliver little bits of power to a proximity, the savings of not wiring a factory could be quite significant. Also, if you want to change the floor layout, you don’t need an electrician – just point the charger in a different location.

With every new – or better – technology, there is a raft of innovation and new ways to think about securing it all. But hopefully we’ll see secure, wireless networks taking shape in places that were simply unattainable or impractical previously. At next year’s CES we’ll probably be seeing some of them.

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