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NASA’s New Wi-Fi Reflector Chip Boosts the Speed of Wearables


NASA's JPL and UCLA together develop a new technology for Wearables The Wi-Fi Reflector Chip, which has been developed for wearable devices by the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), together with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), reflects wireless signals instead of using regular transmitters and receivers.

While wearable gadgets are finding their way into many sectors like health, security and entertainment, many new developments are seeing the light in this technology. There are Green wearables and there are wearables like Ampy that collect kinetic energy from our movement and transmit it to the phone for additional battery time. Along with the regular power sources, there are some uncommon sources that came out to charge wearables – like the chin strap that harvests energy from chewing and the Tattoo-Battery powered by sweat.

But, what if there exists a technology that makes the wearable hold the charge for a longer time? There are some people who postpone their activities due to low battery and there are many who obsessively check the device mid-activity to make sure it is still running. Imagine yourself set out to jog. Just when you crossed the daily target and are trying to push your stamina limits, what if the device gives a ‘battery low’ indication? Your poor activity tracker would fail to note not only your mileage but also the anxiety you feel before the battery dies.

Researchers at NASA’s JPL and UCLA invented a technology that makes the device hold the charge for a longer time. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced this new microchip technology last week.

Adrian Tang, a researcher at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and M.C. Frank Chang at the University of California, Los Angeles, are working on this technology. They are designing the microchips that are to be incorporated in the wearable devices.

“The idea is if the wearable device only needs to reflect the Wi-Fi signal from a router or cell tower, instead of generate it, the power consumption can go way down (and the battery life can go way up),” Tang said in the report.

The data, which gets transferred as bits, uses a simple switch mechanism (0 & 1) that consumes very little power. The absorption of input energy by the circuit represents a 0 and the reflection of energy by the chip symbolises a 1.

“You can send a video in a couple of seconds, but you don’t consume the energy of the wearable device. The transmitter externally is expending energy – not the watch or other wearable,” Chang said in JPL announcement.

The real challenge for the chip lies in differentiating and capturing the real Wi-Fi signal among the background noise – the signals reflected by every object in the surroundings other than the Wi-Fi device.

To filter these background reflections, scientists developed a wireless Silicon chip that constantly senses and suppresses the background noise, saving the Wi-Fi signal from interference with noise signals.

NASA's New Microchip for WearablesWhile the system had been tested up to a distance of 6 metres, at about 2.5 metres, a data transfer rate 330 Mbps, which is about three times the current Wi-Fi data transmission rate, using about a thousand times less power than a regular Wi-Fi link, has been achieved.

Due to this technology, while the wearable device consumes power at a slower rate, both the router and device that is paired with this wearable consumes power at a higher rate. At the current stage, to solve the problem, the communicating device must have a long battery life or be plugged in continuously – a solution which would certainly increase the user’s electricity bill. So, researchers are up to find a better solution for this problem.

JPL, which is envisioning the possible applications of this technology, noted “astronauts and robotic spacecraft could potentially use this technology to transmit images at a lower cost to their precious power supplies. This might also allow more images to be sent at a time.”

Along with certain agreements to commercialize the technology, a patent application, jointly owned by the California Institute of Technology, which manages JPL for NASA, and the University of California, is also in place.

Image (c) : JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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