Please can you give me an overview of Wibotic and how the business was founded?
Waters... The core WiBotic technology was developed during more than eight years of research by two co-founders, Joshua Smith and me, at the University of Washington in Seattle. I studied for a PhD in electrical engineering and my research focus was on wireless charging. In the laboratory, we were working on wirelessly powering implanted medical devices — specifically this technology was designed for ventricular assist devices and allows patients to power the devices without a transcutaneous power cable. I loved working on applications that have a demonstrated need for wireless power technology.
The robotics industry was really enthusiastic about our technology when we were thinking about commercialization. Companies came to us and told us of a need for a more reliable way of charging mobile robots because contact based systems were prone to failure. I graduated in May 2015 and the week after we raised our first round of funding — the company was up and running.
What are WiBotic’s main products/services?
Waters... WiBotic sells both hardware and software. The hardware consists of two parts; a transmitter that can be deployed throughout a facility and a receiver that attaches to the robot. The receiver can convert incoming wireless power into DC voltage and works as a fully programmable battery charger. The WiBotic system is agnostic to battery type, which means it can charge different types of robots from a range of companies, the user just has to programmatically adjust it to the right voltage.
The software is extremely important. When charging a wireless mobile phone, the user can adjust the phone’s position until it is perfect. However, an autonomous system doesn’t have this luxury, so we built software to ensure the robot can reliably drive in-range of sufficient wireless power.
In addition, the software enables the optimisation of fleet uptime. A warehouse with 100 robots may only have 50 transmitters, but because the API makes the robots aware of the locations of the transmitters, how close they are and whether they are available, uptime of the fleet can be managed. The software API communicates with both the robot and the transmitter, enabling fleet energy management to be optimised.
What is the greatest challenge that WiBotic overcame?
Waters... Ensuring the reliability of the system has been and continues to be a huge focus for us. My background was in research, which involved making a demonstration device work within a confined setting. It was a huge learning curve to take the product from a research stage to one that works in every environment. Certain factors are difficult for wireless charging — how close other metal objects are, interference with other devices — and we strive for high reliability, proactively addressing the edge cases that came up.
Coming from an engineering background, I also faced a steep learning curve on the business side of things. I had to learn take a step back and think about the bigger picture including fundraising, driving sales and leadership. I worked closely with advisors to guide me through this process.
What is the main innovation you bring to the market?
Waters... Our core technology enables wireless charging that is more flexible than a traditional system. For example, wireless charging for mobile phones requires the phone to be within about 1 cm from the transmitter. Getting this close to the receiver would be difficult for a robot to do accurately and consistently. Using our technology, the robot only needs to be within about 10 cm to receive the full amount of charge ─ the robot doesn’t have to be perfectly positioned.
We also enable the optimisation of the logistics of charged fleets. Often, charging is a bottleneck but using our technologies means companies can scale up their fleets with no charging problems.
How does the product tie into the growing use of automation?
Waters... WiBotic focuses on three areas — systems that require reliability, battery powered fleets and systems that have a high need for automation. Industrial automation facilities often have a huge number of sensors, which need to be charged, monitored and maintained. If one goes down, it could mean downtime for the business.
While the transmission of data from sensors has been wireless for some time, thanks to WiFi, power has been the opposite. Historically sensors have been powered by a tethered cable, but this can be a trip hazard and can wear out over time. The industrial automation market has a lot to gain by deploying wireless charging, only needing to replenish the batteries of sensors periodically and eliminating power cables.