Cutting the cord doesn't just mean getting rid of your cable provider anymore. Robots and industrial machines once tethered to power outlets are starting to get a real taste of freedom thanks to advances in wireless high-power transfer.
Signs of an untethered future are starting to make it to a broader market, and they point to the same truth: Power cords once needed in industrial applications and to recharge electric vehicles are heading to the dustbin of history. They're being replaced with wireless power transfer, a technology that is rapidly advancing thanks to heavy research-and-development investment and a world of electric-powered machines ready for disruption.
Consumer products have already started incorporating wireless power transfer to great fanfare —smartphones, toothbrushes and the like with this capability are preferred over their predecessors. But the advance of industrial wireless power transfer has been stymied so far because transferring more power in the kilowatt range, compared to a few meager watts for small consumer electronics, demands better management components, consistent open-standard design architecture and more robust materials.
The push for high-power wireless power transfer has accelerated over the last few years in parallel with the growth of industrial automation and autonomous systems. Wireless power will also have its place in the Industrial Internet of Things, which is the rapidly expanding collection of connected machines, computers and sensors that is making everything from healthcare to airplanes and energy production smarter and more efficient.
Wireless power transfer will allow these devices to be more mobile and, with no need for plugs and connectors, to be built fully sealed so they can operate reliably in a range of challenging, variable environments. Just think — manufacturing robots will be able to move autonomously from station to station where they’re needed and recharge where and when it’s convenient.
"Wireless power transfer is the future," said Manish Bhardwaj, an engineer at our company who works on foundational components that wireless power transfer systems need. "In autonomous applications in factories, robotics, aerospace and automotive, when we cut the cord, all kinds of opportunities become possible."
Antique dreams become reality
Cords snaking across floors and countertops have been with us since power tools and other industrial electric devices began coming on the scene more than a century ago.
But those cords come with all kinds of problems. They limit a device's mobility. They create weakness in even the best engineering plans by allowing water, dirt and air into connectors while also increasing wear and tear for devices that are continually being plugged in and detached. And on factory floors and elsewhere, cords also present a major hazard for people and machines navigating around them.
Since those first electric innovations arrived, the idea of wireless power has been a dream that is always just out of reach. The eccentric and brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla envisioned a wireless power grid that covered the globe, where machines would draw current just by tapping into it. But his experiments failed. Others made halting advances to transmit electricity throughout the 20th century, but the possibilities of wireless power have only started to be realized in recent years.
Coupling sends electricity through air
Wireless power transfer works via a principle called inductive charging. In simple terms, a coil in a transmitter couples with one in a remote receiver that can be inches or feet away, depending on the system. Together, these two coils create a virtual transformer. The transmitter releases electromagnetic energy that induces a current in the receiver. This current can be used to charge an on-board battery attached to the receiving coil.
Of course, actual wireless power transfer systems are much more complex, and handling more power for applications at the center of manufacturing and automotive components comes with its own set of challenges. The current gets converted a few times, an antenna amplifies the electromagnetic wave and specialty diodes control the electricity so that it can be safely transmitted and used.
The brains of the operation
The key to making this complex system work involves putting a digital brain at the center of it to control things like the electromagnetic wave's frequency, amplitude and phase. That becomes even more important in kilowatt-powered industrial processes and electric vehicle charging.
Our C2000™ real-time microcontroller (MCU) is a key component that many companies rely on. It’s a small microcontroller – located on both the transmitter and receiver and communicating over Bluetooth® or Wi-Fi® – used to manage power flow. The C2000 MCU can automatically tune the system by sensing input voltages to the transmitter, battery demand and other factors to adapt to constantly changing power needs and supply.
Taiwan's KNOWMAX Technology Ltd. is one of the wireless power transfer industry leaders harnessing the intelligent controls built into the C2000 MCU. The company holds a number of patents to incorporate cutting-edge wireless charging technology into electrical systems.
"TI's C2000 MCUs give us the flexibility we need to adapt our systems to different markets," KNOWMAX project manager Tank Huang said. "This component really enables precise control of our power stages so that we can transfer power as efficiently as possible."
With a goal of being market leaders in the essential equipment that makes high-power wireless power transfer possible, our researchers are pushing our components to intelligently handle increasing power transfer rates and distance between transmitter and receiver. With all of this dedicated work to improve wireless power transfer engineering, we expect to see it deployed in robotics, industrial utility and warehouse vehicles, electric cars, and larger fleet and construction vehicles.
"No pun intended, but the air is electrified for those of us in the wireless power transfer space right now," said Chris Clearman, a C2000 MCU product marketing engineer. "Engineers soon won't need to scour their plans to find optimal placements for high-voltage receptacles. Consumers are going to be driving in electric vehicles that won't need to be plugged in. Factory employees will work alongside wirelessly charging robots. When you think about it, we're developing a technology that will eventually reach every person and industry on Earth."
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