Seattle Startup WiBotic Readies Wireless Recharge System for Drones

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Not only does it tune the coils for optimal charging even when the drone and base station are imperfectly aligned, it provides battery intelligence and management—particularly useful for companies that are deploying larger fleets of robots. So if a drone’s work is done for the day, it can slowly fill up its batteries, optimizing for battery longevity. If it needs to get back up in the air ASAP, the software can ramp up the recharge rate.

Reliable information about the current state of a drone’s battery could also help ease concerns among public safety officials as the industry advocates for regulations allowing operations beyond a human pilot’s line-of-sight. WiBotic’s information could help demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration “that these are being monitored safely and alerts are being sent out well before batteries will fail,” Waters says.

WiBotic licenses from the UW its core technologies for extending the range of inductive charging systems. Waters and co-founder Joshua Smith met when Waters interned at Intel Labs Seattle, where they worked on early wireless charging for phones. (Smith was initially inspired by some of the same MIT research that gave rise to Watertown, MA-based WiTricity, a well-funded wireless charging company that has licensed its technology for use in automotive, consumer electronics, industrial, and medical applications.)

Intel closed the lab in 2010. Smith became an associate professor in the UW departments of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, and Waters joined him as a graduate student, conducting his PhD research on wireless power for implanted medical devices—specifically left ventricular assist devices.

WiBotic, founded in 2015, has filed additional patents related to battery monitoring, management, and autonomous systems, Waters says.

WiBotic recently returned from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Xponential convention, one of the largest trade shows for autonomous vehicles, where it made the final round of a startup competition. It attended AUVSI Xponential in 2016, too, and Waters says the industry has matured rapidly.

Last year, he says, many of the exhibiting companies were still trying to figure out what drones would be used for. They knew they needed to address things like power, sensing, and data, he says. “But it was almost too early,” Waters says.

This year, the industry has zoomed in on promising commercial applications in industries such as security, agriculture, surveillance, entertainment, and construction, and has identified the appropriate platforms and sensors they need to serve those industries, he says.

A WiBotic drone landing pad equipped with wireless charging technology. Photo courtesy of WiBotic

“And that’s when power, that’s when sensing, that’s when precision landing really become necessary pieces for those companies,” Waters says. “I really felt like this year was a testament to that. The conversations were, ‘How can we use this?’ not just, ‘Oh, that’s cool. Let’s stay in touch.’”

WiBotic has development kits available for customers building autonomous vehicles in the air, on land, and in the water. The company intends to sell its technology—the charging hardware and battery intelligence software—to drone and robot manufacturers and operators.

“We have customers who are scaling up now across all three industries,” Waters says, adding, “2018 is going to be an exciting year for that growth to really accelerate.”

Waters says the funding gives the company enough capital to operate for 18 to 24 months as it continues product and market development efforts. The lead investor Tsing Capital, a large Chinese venture capital and private equity fund, was joined by new investors Comet Labs and Digi Labs, as well as the W Fund, WRF Capital, and Wisemont Capital, which previously provided a $750,000 convertible debt note to get WiBotic off the ground.

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