PowerLight and Ericsson demonstrate laser beaming system to power 5G stations
Beaming power wirelessly using laser beams has been the stuff of science fiction for decades — but Kent, Wash.-based PowerLight Technologies and Ericsson, the Swedish-based multinational telecommunications company, have shown how it can become a reality for 5G wireless service.
It may take a couple of years for PowerLight’s beamed-power system to get integrated into Ericsson’s 5G equipment, but the proof-of-concept demonstration could help usher in an age when wireless power is as widely accepted as wireless communication is today.
“The idea that Ericsson is promoting is, we now have wireless connectivity,” PowerLight CEO Richard Gustafson told GeekWire. “It’s time to cut the final cord — and that’s the power cord.”
Gustafson said PowerLight is taking a “crawl, walk, run” approach to wireless power.
“That is not to go from our proof of concept to an urban environment, but to start to work toward packaging for an environment such as disaster response or emergency response, where you’ve got to get equipment up and running quickly,” he said.
The demonstration for Ericsson was conducted at and around PowerLight’s facilities in Kent at the end of July.
“That proof of concept was defined by a set of parameters for power and distance, using Ericsson hardware,” Gustafson explained. “In this case, it was a 5G radio base station that required a minimum of 200 watts of power.”
Ericsson’s engineers installed the Ericsson Streetmacro 6701 base station and PowerLight’s laser light receiver station onto a 22-foot-tall pole in a parking lot, about 400 feet from the company’s workshop and garage. PowerLight’s system converted electrical power into infrared laser light for transmission to the receiver, which converted the laser energy back into electrical power at high efficiency.
“We beamed power from our garage setup out across the parking lot to our receiver, then powered a battery that powered the base station,” Gustafson said. “And so it was verified that there were no cables anywhere, and that the power was absolutely delivered wirelessly.”
The demonstration also put PowerLight’s safety system to the test. When an obstruction was placed inside the “safety ring” extending from PowerLight’s laser transmitter to the receiver, the laser shut itself off within milliseconds. The system’s batteries kept the 5G transmission system powered up until the obstruction was removed and the laser beam started up again.
“Without safety, you don’t have an application,” Gustafson said.
This summer’s daylong test built on earlier demonstrations for customers at the Department of Defense, who signed off on the power-beaming system’s performance as well as its safety.
PowerLight has just wrapped up a nearly $10 million contract with the Naval Research Laoboratory. Now the company is gearing up to work on a $10 million contract vehicle that would involve Pentagon funding plus commercial work.
And that’s not all: “We’re looking at a private funding round with the amount and timing to be determined — but broad strokes, we could imagine a $5 [million] to $10 million round at some point in 2022,” Gustafson said. Fresh funding is likely to boost PowerLight’s Kent-based workforce of staff and contractors well beyond its current level of roughly two dozen.
Ericsson is signaling that PowerLight’s support for its Radio Access Network hardware is just the start of what could be a beautiful friendship. “Both PowerLight and Ericsson are focused on innovation,” Kevin Zvokel, head of networks for Ericsson North America, said in a news release. “This is a significant first step toward enabling future uses that will redefine ‘possible.’ Imagine using laser-based optical beaming to support power-cable-free machines such as automated guided vehicles and drones, as well as devices like IoT sensors and lamps.”
PowerLight, which was known as LaserMotive until the company rebranded itself in 2017, has been working on the power-beaming challenge for more than a decade. Its first big success involved winning a $900,000 prize in the NASA-funded Space Elevator Games, back in 2009. Since then, the company has expanded its portfolio to take in fiber-optic and marine applications and power distribution on the moon.
Several other Seattle-area startups, such as WiBotic, Jeeva and Ossia, are focusing on wireless power systems for drones, phones, robots and ultra-low-power mobile devices. Researchers at the University of Washington and Bellevue, Wash.-based Intellectual Ventures have looked into power-beaming systems for free-flying drones. But Claes Olsson, PowerLight’s executive chairman, said his company’s system is targeting a wider market that poses bigger challenges.
Eventually, PowerLight aims to be transmitting kilowatts of power through the air over a distance of a kilometer (0.6 mile) or more — and the demonstration conducted for Ericsson suggests that the company is on target to reach that goal.
“Most people are aware that wireless charging technology is available today for small electronic devices, such as cell phones and watches,” Olsson said. “This demonstration, which utilized the best innovative technology from PowerLight and Ericsson, underscores the major leaps that we have made recently toward the commercialization of safe, wireless power transmission for larger-scale systems.”
Olsson said PowerLight has a list of more than 140 potential use cases to choose from, but chose 5G as the place to start.
“As a startup, you need to focus, focus, focus,” he told GeekWire. “This is what we are focused on, and we couldn’t find a better partner than Ericsson.”