True wireless charging at a distance has arrived — you just can’t buy it yet. But companies like Ossia are making progress, buoyed by industrial and enterprise players. In September 2018, the Bellevue, Washington-based startup said it would team up with Walmart to help the retailer cut costs in its thousands of stores, Ossia’s fourth such partnership that year. Building on this commitment, the company today revealed that it’s collaborating with T-Mobile to develop a first-of-its-kind, wirelessly powered internet of things (IoT) asset tracking solution that will be piloted in Walmart distribution centers later this year, ahead of a production run in 2020.
“The proof of concept is going to be high-performance [and] cost-efficient,” Preston Woo, chief strategy officer at Ossia, told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “[Walmart employees] won’t have to replace batteries or charge them in cradles.”
Instead, guards and associates will wirelessly power the asset trackers at warehouses’ guard shacks, ensuring the trackers are charged before they’re attached to incoming trailers, crates, pallets, and packages. All the while, embedded sensors will exchange tracking data via T-Mobile’s Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) network, a secure cellular service designed to meet the needs of low-power devices.
If you aren’t familiar with Ossia’s Cota platform, here’s a quick primer: Unlike most “wireless” charging tech on the market, Cota doesn’t require line-of-sight access. Rather, it uses thousands of antennas embedded in transmitters that communicate with compatible transceivers. When a device starts running low on power, those antennas emit microseconds-long beacon signals that reflect off walls, furniture, and other obstacles until they reach a transmitter, which triangulates the beams to pinpoint the transceiver’s location and then sends power along those paths.
Cota’s first-generation transmitter could send about one watt to a smartphone sitting three to six feet away, while its Cota Tile product could charge devices up to 30 feet away (or 50 feet, with two transmitters working in tandem). Cota 5.8GHz, which was announced at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show in January, is vastly improved; it’s able to deliver roughly 4 times greater power with a same-sized transmitter and receiver antenna. And because it operates in the 5.8GHz spectrum, it’s less susceptible to interference from surrounding wireless signals.
So how is all that applicable to warehouse logistics? Well, power sources within warehouses aren’t typically easy to come by, and warehouses’ floor plans are in a constant state of flux. “The problem [is] that it’s very cumbersome to track temporary assets — [things like] trailers in distribution centers, containers in port, automobiles in auction lots, high-value crates in airports,” explained Woo. “Distribution centers are millions of square feet in some cases … [so companies] have to employ a lot of labor on a nightly, weekly, or monthly basis to track [everything].”
It’s not that there aren’t sophisticated tracking devices out there. On the contrary, supply chain asset tracking is a multibillion-dollar market cornered by companies like GeoForce, Tenna, and Logistimatics. It’s just that most sensors have requirements — chiefly power and connectivity — impeding their deployment.
Woo says that Ossia’s technology and T-Mobile’s network will together free up time that’s currently spent hunting down dead or dying devices and enable the management of assets that, whether because of their locations or configurations, couldn’t be tracked autonomously before.
One thing’s certain: Ossia couldn’t have chosen a better proving ground. Walmart has roughly 11,800 locations in 28 countries, and it operates 175 distribution centers in the U.S. alone.
“The deployment with Walmart is interesting in the larger context of the internet of things,” said T-Mobile vice president of IoT Balaji Sridharan. “Two huge barriers that have plagued massive IoT deployments to date have been solved: keeping devices powered continuously for mobile applications and lowering the cost of complex deployments, in this case a massive supply chain with dozens of geographically dispersed distribution centers. The combination of Ossia’s technology and the energy efficiency of NB-IoT solves the power problem, while the T-Mobile NB-IoT network, the first such network deployed in the U.S., provides a cost structure that enables deployment on a massive scale.”
It’s a meaningful step toward commercialization for Ossia, which has raised more than $35 million to date and has a growing list of partners that includes smartphone accessory maker Spigen. But the company faces competition from Powercast, a startup founded in 2003 that’s developing an at-a-distance wireless power system, and Energous, which is licensing transmitters that can send power through the air to devices up to 15 feet away.
Unlike some of its rivals, however, Ossia is no newcomer to at-a-distance charging. Roughly a decade ago, the company developed its first wire-free, over-the-air transceiver that could beam electricity to devices anywhere within range. In the years since, it has released kits that include a wirelessly powered AA battery replacement (the Forever Battery), licensed designs to antenna companies, built out a cloud-hosted management platform, and recruited ecosystem partners like Displaydata, Molex, and Motherson.
Retail isn’t Ossia’s endgame, of course. The company is working with wireless carriers, battery manufacturers, and a number of companies in other verticals.
“We’re a horizontal technology, and we’re an enabling technology, as opposed to a single product. Much like a chip, we [drive] a bunch of different use cases, whether it’s IoT, consumer, automotive, or retail. These are all areas we’re pushing foward in,” said Woo. “There are a lot of applications you’ll be hearing much more about in the near future.”