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UW and UW ECE spinout WiBotic part of $5.8M contract to study wireless charging on moon

November 18, 2020

UW ECE alum Ben Waters is co-founder and CEO of WiBotic — a UW ECE spinout and key organization involved in the contract to study wireless charging on the moon. (University of Washington)

One challenge to life in space is power: how to keep humans cozy and robots working when there are no built-in power outlets and when solar power is not always an option.

Now a team of organizations — led by the space technology company Astrobotic and including the University of Washington and the UW Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering (UW ECE) spinout WiBotic — has received a $5.8 million contract to develop a line of lightweight, ultrafast wireless chargers that could help both humans and robots live and work on the moon. This contract is part of the NASA Tipping Point call for proposals.

Though prototypes for wireless charging have existed since 2011, this new magnetic resonance-based power supply system would be the first of its kind in space.

Wireless charging in space comes with its own set of issues, such as how to keep the metallic iron in moon dust — or lunar regolith — from interfering with charging connections. The UW has received $440,000 from this contract to study how lunar regolith affects wireless power transfer.

“Moon dust is very fine and tends to stick to surfaces because it gets electrically charged. The UW team is tackling the fundamental research question of how dust particle size and composition affects power transfer efficiency,” said UW lead researcher Joshua Smith, a professor in both the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering and UW ECE. “We plan to take an approach that is a hybrid of science and engineering: We will develop a synthetic moon dust that is consistent with known relevant properties, but that represents the worst case for our wireless power transfer system.

Joshua R. Smith, a UW professor in both ECE and CSE, will be UW’s lead researcher for understanding how moon dust particle size and composition affect power transfer efficiency. (photo by Tara Gimmer)

“Our work will be the basis of the engineering requirements for the rest of the team. It will help us answer questions such as: how much extra power should be transferred to overcome the expected losses to heat? Or how much cooling capacity needs to be built into the system to get rid of that heat produced in the moon dust?”

Astrobotic’s CubeRover, which was developed in collaboration with the NASA Kennedy Space Center, is the first space technology that will be integrated with the wireless charging system. Part of NASA’s Tipping Point contract will fund the development of CubeRover’s intelligent autonomous navigation system, which will enable precise navigation where GPS is not an option. This will equip the CubeRover — and other planetary roving technologies — to find charging docks to power up again and again, and survive the 14-day lunar night.

Astrobotic will space-qualify the entire system, test engineering and flight models, and lead integration of CubeRover and the multi-kilowatt, ultrafast wireless charging system, designed by WiBotic. WiBotic will also provide engineering, mechanical and electrical design support.

A team of multiple organizations, including the UW and UW ECE spinout Wibotic, plans to develop a line of lightweight, ultrafast wireless chargers that could help both humans and robots live and work on the moon. (Sarah McQuate/University of Washington)

“These rovers need easy and reliable access to power in an environment that includes extremely abrasive dust and severe temperatures, making this a perfect application for WiBotic’s innovative non-contact proximity charging solutions,” says Ben Waters, UW ECE alum and WiBotic CEO. “We’re looking forward to working with Astrobotic and the team to deliver flexible and durable charging stations that provide power to a range of manned and unmanned lunar vehicles.”

This wireless charging technology could have considerable utility not only on the moon, but also in critical space applications on Mars, in orbit and beyond. Future teams will be able to scale the wireless technology to diverse assets like lunar vehicles, power tools, flying systems and more. The base station, power receiver and CubeRover flight units will be delivered to NASA for inclusion into an upcoming lunar mission via the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program in 2023.

Adapted from a release by Astrobotic.