Mobile robots are limited in range and function by how often and how long they need to recharge. WiBotic Inc. announced today that it has received the authorization from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission for its high-power transmitters and receivers. The Seattle-based company claimed that its 300-watt wireless charging systems are the first to get FCC approval for use with robots, drones, and other industrial devices.
“Previously, only low-power cellphone and small electronics chargers or very high-power electric vehicle chargers were approved for widespread use,” stated Ben Waters, CEO of WiBotic. “As the industry continues to grow, robots and automation in general are facing more regulation and stricter safety and emissions requirements. We’re excited to help businesses solve some of these problems as they rapidly deploy larger autonomous fleets.”
“We feel this will carry a lot of momentum for the robotics industry,” he told The Robot Report. “WiBotic hopes our FCC approval can help make it easier and quicker to move through standards for robot safety and autonomy.”
WiBotic navigates FCC and standards procedures
“There are many new and in-development safety-related certifications for robotics,” Waters explained. “There’s UL 3100 for AGVs [automated guided vehicles] and ISO 13482 for service robots. Both reference how a robot should behave if it loses a navigational sensor. There’s a lot of software stuff to be sorted out; it’s not easy to pass.”
“There are also lots of references to electrical and electric contact safety, which mostly assume a contact dock or contactless charging,” he said. “Robotics developers often have to go back to the drawing board and become experts — that’s where we can help.”
“The FCC approval process took over a year,” Waters recalled. “When we first started doing tests toward certification, our product did not pass, so we had to modify it. It now produces less noise and not as much signal, which is tricky in the world of radio frequencies.”
“A lot of effort went into changing components, enclosures, and firmware for how the system behaves in different operating scenarios,” he said. “We met the requirement for the relevant parts and then undertook a six-week effort to complete testing to generate the report for certification submission.”
“There were three parts — human safety, electromagnetic interference, and conducted emissions,” said Waters. “Our charger can’t interfere with other devices, and it can’t send power back to the grid, which is standard.”
“Nobody else is at these power levels. Phones go up to 10 watts,” said Matt Carlson, vice president of business development at WiBotic. “There were a lot of challenges, but we’re happy to be a pioneer.”
Does WiBotic expect other companies to follow its example in seeking regulatory approval for wireless charging systems? “For this and perhaps different standards and certifications, yes, we hope other companies will follow,” Waters replied.
Finding a safe distance for wireless power
Even before applying for FCC authorization, WiBotic had experience in understanding power transmission and robotics capabilities, Waters said. “As a company, we talked to a lot of robot suppliers and users of our technology and have learned that robots and drones are only so accurate, even with the lidar and sensors that exist today,” he said.
“We asked, ‘How accurate is your robot? What’s its tolerance for docking?'” said Waters. “Millimeter-level precision is a tall ask; centimeter-level is much more doable.”
“On top of that is the form factor of the robots. How big or how small does something need to be before it’s too hard to integrate?” he said. “Everybody wants faster and cheaper charging, but WiBotic wants its products to be easy to integrate and had to consider tolerance requirements, power levels, and range.”
“The ranges we settled on have something to do with antenna sizes — 20 cm or 8 in. for the transmitter and 4 in. for the receiver antenna,” said Carlson. “While we can get smaller, we learned from the robot manufacturers that they can hit 5 cm for a face-to-face air gap, with a 5-cm offset, so we went for a happy medium.”
Power optimization software plays a role
Although the FCC approval applies to WiBotic’s hardware for wireless power transmitters and receivers, optimization software is also needed for safety and efficiency, said Waters.
“For battery charging, we can change the scheduled rates so the device can charge quickly when it’s active during the day and slow it down overnight,” he said. “This has substantial benefits for the longevity of batteries and availability of robots.”
“We need to be able to programmatically set the charging rate, which has effects on FCC certifications. We also had to test to load conditions affecting emissions.” said Waters. “WiBotic’s hardware and software support the logistics of opportunity charging, which enables companies to deploy robot fleets.”
“One edge case is when a robot is going through a docking procedure, it usually navigates to a waypoint close to a charging station. It does a finishing movement to actually dock or plug in,” Waters said. “The question then becomes ‘How does the robot know quickly if it’s actually plugged in or actually pulling power?’ If not, that can quickly have massive cost or uptime consequences.”
“If a robot has to wait for a minute to get into precision docking, in a large operation, that adds up to a lot of downtime and more robots than you need,” he added. “If the robot has to wait to see current flowing into its battery, it becomes really important for our customers to solve for end users.”
“It’s different from cellphone charging, where the user just puts the phone on a pad and sees an icon. It’s intuitive, and robots don’t work that way,” Waters said. “Our system knows right away if the antennas are aligned. We expose that data in the form of an API [application programming interface] to the robot or to the warehouse management system through the charger’s API.”
WiBotic widens device-charging options with FCC nod
Standards and FCC authorization are important to robotics companies that need to build for commercialization, according to Waters.
“Most of our customers are exiting the development stage and are entering the product stage, which is why we’ve achieved FCC certification,” he said. “We meet some companies that are future-proofing themselves.”
“We’ve focused from Day 1 on mobile robots, aerial drones, and even some underwater robots,” he said. “Under water, the ranges get tighter, but power can still be transmitted effectively.”
“We’ve been approached for more general industrial applications, for other battery-powered devices that have a hard time being recharged,” Waters added. “One was a steel foundry with a cart system that retrieves molds and brings them back to where they pour the metal. The carts are fully instrumented with weight and heat sensors.”
“The data was wireless, but they had a reel for power that would roll and unroll as the cart moved back and forth. They wanted to put a battery on the cart, but then had to recharge it at the end of every run while the mold is moved,” he said. “We placed a transmitter underneath, and it can recharge for one minute 30 times per hour.”
“We’re working with a couple of UV companies and end users working with AMR [autonomous mobile robot] bases,” said Waters. “Those bases were designed for a certain runtime and a certain load, and UV bulbs can pull a lot of energy.”
“We’ve seen end users looking to add a second battery to power the bulbs and trying to figure out how to power both devices with different voltages,” he said. “They tried to make two physical contacts at the same time, and the angles are a difficult mechanical problem. It’s easier to do wirelessly.”