by Brig General (ret) Craig Baker, Acting COO & Cherif Chibane, CTO at WiGL
Wearable medical devices play a vital role in healthcare for the military and civilians. Small, portable, and easy to wear, these devices assist first responders, war-fighters and patients with services ranging from physiological diseases like muscle disorders to neurocognitive disorders such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. In recent years, technological advances have succeeded in making these medical devices even more compact, efficient, and accurate. However, there is still the problem that many of these devices require frequent recharging, necessitating the need for downtime. Their charging efficiency can also deplete over time, leading to sudden power failures and the need for replacing.
Fortunately, this is a limitation that may soon be a thing of the past. Another exciting technology that has seen huge leaps in development over the last few years could provide the answer—wireless charging.
The advent of touchless wireless power
Wireless charging is something that’s been around for quite a while as a concept. But it’s only in recent years that the technology has advanced enough to become commercially viable. You may have already come across some of the “wireless” charging pads that have been flooding the market recently. These “touch” pads rely on using electromagnetic induction to wirelessly transmit power from the charger to the device. It’s a technology with a lot of practical applications, especially with electric vehicle development. However, to work, the charging pad must be conventionally plugged into an electrical outlet and your device must touch the charging pad…, meaning it isn’t truly wireless.
But there’s another technology in the industry that promises true touchless wireless capability. This one relies on transmitting power much like a WiFi signal. Just connect your device to a touchless power network, exactly as you would with a hotspot, and watch as your device charges continuously and seamlessly. No need to set the device down or stop using it for periods of time. For wearable military or medical devices that must be always kept on, this is a game-changer.
Benefits of wireless power
Compared to traditional cable-powered devices, wireless power promises to overcome many of the challenges associated with portable military or medical devices. This includes:
1. Low-power and high-power applications
At present, wireless charging can easily power a range of devices below 10 watts. This includes a range of portable devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, and wearable medical devices. But it’s also slowly becoming more applicable for larger devices of up to 300 watts. Each passing year sees more advances in the technology, expanding its power output, range, and charging speed. Given another ten years, we may see most of our electrical devices being powered this way.
2. No downtime or need for replacing
The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries that currently power most of our electrical devices, while certainly more efficient than previous battery types, still have a lot of room for improvement. Over time, their charging capacity begins to degrade, leading to the need for more frequent recharging. Eventually, they must be replaced, necessitating the need for downtime. Battery-free power at a distance solves this issue, creating devices with an unlimited lifespan and no need for replacing.
While this may seem like a mere convenience, it has huge ramifications for devices such as biosensors, continuous glucose monitoring, and untethered insulin delivery systems. People’s lives are at stake with these devices. By providing an uninterrupted source of power, touchless wireless charging (and one day touchless powering) promises a dramatic improvement in patients’ and service members’ lifestyles. WiGL’s founger Glover has termed this… touchless Wireless Power Transfer ot tWPT.
3. Reduced environmental impact
The need to regularly replace lithium-ion batteries that have outlived their life cycle leads to another problem. It is estimated that less than 5% of lithium batteries get recycled, the vast majority end up in landfills where they continue to degrade and leak chemicals into the soil and groundwater. This is a serious environmental issue, one that may not be solvable by simply stepping up our recycling efforts. The problem is that the recycling process is very inefficient and consumes a lot of materials. Only 38%-60% of a lithium battery can be recycled (mostly the metal components). By contrast, up to 95% of a traditional lead-acid battery can be recycled.
Adding to this, you have the environmental damage that comes from mining the materials needed for their construction in the first place. There are only a few lithium mines in the world and the extraction process causes a lot of water pollution and wastage. Cobalt, another vital material used in the construction of lithium batteries, is also a rare material. Up to two-thirds of it comes from mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where child labor and unsafe conditions are rife. Battery-free wirelessly charged devices leave almost no footprint on the environment.
4. Greater device durability
Having to frequently recharge a device by plugging a cable into its charging port tends to cause a lot of wear and tear. This can reduce the lifespan of a device, necessitating further repair or replacement. tWPT charging entirely eliminates this issue. Additionally, since there will one day be no need for a charging port, manufacturers can design devices that are fully waterproof and dust resistant. Considering that some portable military and/or medical devices must be always kept on, this can make a big difference to user adherence.
5. Expanded capabilities through the Internet-of-Things (IoT)
IoT networks allow for systems to easily communicate and exchange data. In the medical field, this has enormous applications, especially for home-based patients. Health professionals can now more easily monitor a wearer’s vitals and set up alerts for when sensor readings become dangerous or out of the norm. Expanding our view further, these smart wearables can be connected to a centralized or home health monitoring system where all data is collected, processed, and remotely monitored.
Powered through tWPT charging, smart wearables will allow doctors and battlefield medics to easily keep tabs on their patients as they go about their daily lives. This will lead to greater convenience, faster reaction times, and more effective health management.
What medical device makers need to know about leveraging tWPT
Wireless charging isn’t without a few problems of its own. It’s an emerging technology and still has a way to go before it becomes efficient enough to be as ubiquitous as, say, WiFi or Bluetooth. One of the largest reported issues with it is that charging speeds can be noticeably slower than with traditional cable charging. Range is another issue, though some providers market their devices as being workable at distances of up to 15 feet. Progress is being made on overcoming both these issues and it remains to be seen what their full capabilities could be in the future. WiGL’s tWPT meshed networking for instance will one day soon make distance an obsolete issue!
There are also compatibility issues as different manufacturers have different charging standards. The most widely used WPT is Qi (pronounced “chee”), which has been developed by the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC). Qi looks set to become the world standard but others are jockeying for that position. Until a WPT universal standard can be reached there may be compatibility issues between some wearable medical devices and the wireless power provider chosen. Here too, WiGL is helping lead the charge to set the standard for tWPT of tomorrow.
Military and medical technologies are currently going through something of a revolution. The switch to a more tech-heavy system that integrates the latest technology promises better use of healthcare data and a more personalized and efficient healthcare system. Medical technology developers that can react the fastest by providing efficient, easy to operate, and cost-effective wearables stand to gain the most. Already, mobile technology is enabling greater communication between providers and patients. By finding new innovations in sensor technologies, touchless wireless power, and IoT, exponential growth could be soured in the wearables market.
While the day we can all enjoy WiGL enabled tWPT products is still some time away from where wirelessly powered wearables become the industry norm, the pace of development suggests that it may be closer than many think. Promising military contracts for WiGL enabled tWPT and advances in AI technology are another area developers will want to keep an eye on as it may drive further innovations in the medical technology markets. Likewise, as more clinicians convince patients of the value and benefits of wirelessly powered wearables, the pace and scale of the civilian market’s growth can only be expected to go up.
Filed Under: Medical, IoT • IIoT • internet of things • Industry 4.0