One thing most RVers rely on more than anything else (but their RVs) is a cell phone to stay in touch with friends, family and the outside world. One problem with cell phones, however, is their batteries can easily go dead. And that can be a huge inconvenience at critical times.
So here’s some exciting news. Researchers at the University of Washington have invented a cellphone that requires no batteries. Instead, it harvests the few microwatts of power it requires from either ambient radio signals or light.
But don’t get too excited: the phone is likely years away.
The team of UW computer scientists and electrical engineers eliminated a power-hungry step in most modern cellular transmissions — converting analog signals that convey sound into digital data that a phone can understand. This process consumes so much energy that it’s been impossible to design a phone that can rely on ambient power sources.
Instead, the battery-free cellphone takes advantage of tiny vibrations in a phone’s microphone or speaker that occur when a person is talking into a phone or listening to a call.
An antenna connected to those components converts that motion into changes in standard analog radio signal emitted by a cellular base station. This process essentially encodes speech patterns in reflected radio signals in a way that uses almost no power.
TO TRANSMIT SPEECH, the phone uses vibrations from the device’s microphone to encode speech patterns in the reflected signals. To receive speech, it converts encoded radio signals into sound vibrations that that are picked up by the phone’s speaker. In the prototype device, the user presses a button to switch between these two “transmitting” and “listening” modes.
Using off-the-shelf components on a printed circuit board, the team demonstrated that the prototype can perform basic phone functions — transmitting speech and data and receiving user input via buttons.
“The cellphone is the device we depend on most today. So if there were one device you’d want to be able to use without batteries, it is the cellphone,” said faculty lead Joshua Smith, professor in both the Allen School and UW’s Department of Electrical Engineering. “The proof of concept we’ve developed is exciting today, and we think it could impact everyday devices in the future.”
Next, the research team plans to focus on improving the battery-free phone’s operating range and encrypting conversations to make them secure. The team is also working to stream video over a battery-free cellphone and add a visual display feature to the phone using low-power E-ink screens.
Watch the short video for a demonstration of the new phone.