Nikola Labs and the Race for Wireless IoT Power
Nikola Tesla predicted wireless power transmission back in the 1920s. We’re not there yet, but we are getting closer. Later this month, a company named after Tesla, Nikola Labs, will demonstrate IoT sensors using wireless power to monitor multiple factory machines for preventative maintenance.
Nikola Labs calls itself “a wireless power company with an advantaged far-field technology that converts radio frequency (RF) energy into direct current (DC) power.” Its stated goal is to wirelessly power the Internet of Things. One key to success is its new INDRA chip, a 5.6 mm x 3 mm x 0.8 mm processor specifically designed to power IoT devices. If it works as promised, the system will completely replace batteries and AC power.
Spun off from Ohio State University in 2014, Nikola Labs draws on research in radio frequency technology conducted at OSU by Dr. Chi-Chih Chen, who is now the company’s lead inventor and CTO. Working with Texas Instruments and Skyworks Solutions, Chen and his team eventually miniaturized his original concept hardware down to millimeter size with the INDRA chip.
“Our new method has the potential to solve the power problem for low-power DC devices,” says Nikola Labs CEO Will Zell.
While an IoT device may cost only a handful of dollars, providing electrical power to it often costs hundreds or more. Building safety codes regularly demand that AC power lines be run within metal conduit, for example, and batteries impose monitoring and replacement costs. Wireless power promises to reduce device installation burdens and eliminate battery replacement costs, as well as avoid device shutdown when batteries drain.
The Nikola Labs system uses a beacon, similar to a Wi-Fi access point, to power multiple nearby chips, each of which verifies its connection constantly and works with the transmitter to adjust consumption as needed. According to Zell, charging pads use coil-based inductive or magnetic resonance, both of which are better suited for short-range, higher-power transfers. “Ours is a radiating antenna-based system,” he notes.
“The demonstration will use a late, late prototype chip,” adds Zell. “We could deploy this to customers now, but we want to make a few more final tweaks.” Prices will be under $6 for the chip and will go down with volume.
Not yet plug-and-play, the INDRA chip needs antennas and other peripherals before it’s fully operational. “There’s a lot to get going initially, but after we illustrate the system it should create greater momentum,” Zell says. Being located in Ohio, which is close to many manufacturers and the integrators who service them, will help accelerate the process.
“We’re working with regional IoT development companies, people on the ground building these systems,” Zell says. Nikola Labs will officially release more information once the demonstration gets underway.
“We feel there’s a lot of potential here,” says Zell. “We have to balance excitement and reality.”
"The economic transmission of power without wires is of all-surpassing importance to man."