Researchers make low-power Wi-Fi breakthrough

Researchers make low-power Wi-Fi breakthrough

UW computer scientists and electrical engineers have generated “passive” Wi-Fi transmissions that use 10,000 times less power than current methods.

Credit: University of Washington

Passive Wi-Fi could make for a more energy efficient Internet of Things, University of Washington researchers say

The biggest downside of Wi-Fi for most users might be that it can really drain your smartphone or tablet battery, but a research team at the University of Washington has come up with a way to make using the nearly ubiquitous wireless technology in a less taxing way.

They have demonstrated a technique for using 10,000 times less power than typical Wi-Fi (well, at up to 11Mbps anyway) and next month will present a paper titled "Passive Wi-Fi: Bringing Low Power to Wi-Fi Transmissions" at the USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design in Santa Clara.

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Not only is Passive Wi-Fi more energy-efficient than typical Wi-Fi, but the research says it uses 1,000 times less power than Bluetooth Low Energy and Zigbee. 

"We wanted to see if we could achieve Wi-Fi transmissions using almost no power at all," said co-author Shyam Gollakota, a UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering, in a statement. The researchers did this in part by decoupling analog and digital operations of radio transmissions, and making the analog part (which typically consumes 100s of milliwatts of power) much more efficient. Their scheme involves centralizing the heavy lifting, like producing a signal at a specific frequency, into a plugged-in device, then using passive sensors that include digital switches to reflect and absorb such signals.

Such passive Wi-Fi technology could support typical Wi-Fi applications, but also pave the way for broader Internet of Things support. After all, one of the obstacles to IoT adoption is additional power usage for all sorts of household items, for example.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Washington and Qualcomm.

Wi-Fi has been a ripe area for research, such as with Rice University exploring ways to improve propagation. In fact, Rice and MIT engineers each have presentations at the same USENIX conference next month at which University of Washington researchers will present.

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