FLI Charge’s conductive wireless charging could revolutionize classroom tech

Juice Mobile Power from Bretford and FLI Charge
Bretford

A new product called Juice Mobile Power has just received FCC and ETL certification to roll out into classrooms and offices across the country. Developed by power delivery experts FLI Charge and educational tech manufacturers Bretford, Juice Mobile Power is designed to deliver safe, efficient power to environments with a shortage of outlets.

“At FLI Charge we’re really focused on bringing power closer to people,” CEO Cliff Weinstein explained to Digital Trends. “Schools are looking for a convenient way to move power around in a code-compliant fashion, and this offers significant savings over retrofitting power outlets.”

Retrofitting a new power outlet in a school or an office building can be very expensive, especially if you want it in the middle of a room. You may have to drill through concrete, old buildings could present structural or asbestos concerns, and the cost can easily run into the thousands of dollars.

The answer up until now has been overloaded power strips and extension cords, which can be dangerous, or charging carts, which don’t deliver power where it’s needed at the desktop. But that could be about to change.

Juice Mobile Power can deliver up to 300W, enough to power up to 20 devices from a single outlet, and a starter kit costs less than $1,500.

Digital Trends got a demo of the new technology in action, and the potential is exciting.

A brick-sized power supply is plugged into a wall outlet, and it converts power from AC to DC, sending it to thin, 6-foot-long extension tracks that can be placed anywhere on the floor. When someone wants power, they drop a pod on top of the track with a cord that attaches to the plugs you want — for example, a series of USB plugs that can sit on the desktop powering tablets and laptops.

Juice Mobile Power from Bretford and FLI Charge
Bretford

The pod lights up when it’s ready to deliver power and, since everything in the modular system attaches magnetically, there’s no tripping hazard. Pods can be dropped anywhere on the track, then the onboard circuitry goes through a handshake procedure with the power management module (PMM) and pulls in the precise amount of power needed to charge up attached devices.

Juice Mobile Power can simultaneously charge up multiple devices with different power demands.

There’s also foreign-object detection that instantly powers down the surface, which Weinstein demonstrated for us by placing his palm on the extension track. The pod light went out immediately and then powered up again a few seconds after he removed his hand.

It’s easy to see the potential for Juice Mobile Power beyond the classroom, such as in conference rooms, office buildings, or anywhere there’s a power requirement and not enough outlets to go around.

FLI Charge showed us the technology embedded into a desk and powering a laptop, but it could also be used to power a monitor or another modified device — anything with FLI Charge’s circuitry inside.

“Surface is a static thing, and we make that surface functional,” says Weinstein. “There are just two limitations: We have to create contact because it is conductive … and the other limitation is power supply.”

We first came across FLI Charge when the company ran a successful Indiegogo campaign with charging pads and phone cases that worked a lot like Qi wireless charging, but much faster and more efficiently.

While most of us are sold on the convenience of wireless charging and power over distance, there are concerns about its safety, inefficiency, and slow speed.

“We are not a wireless charging company,” Weinstein told us. “I believe wireless charging and power over distance will exist, just not the way people think it will due to the power restrictions and safety and efficiency issues, but we’re all under the same umbrella — we’re all trying to bring power closer.”

Early Qi chargers were around 60 percent efficient, and though they’ve climbed up to 75 percent in some cases, there’s still a lot of power being lost. Even the best Qi wireless chargers are also still a lot slower than wired charging.

All the power-over-distance technology we’ve seen so far is extremely inefficient, in terms of putting out a huge amount of power to get a small amount to the device — 20 to 30 percent within five feet would be a good return.

Safety is also a concern. Energous has won FCC approval, but is currently delivering very small amounts of power over very short distances — a few hundred milliwatts over three feet.

“Moving power over distance is not a challenge, but to do so efficiently and safely is a near impossibility,” Weinstein suggests.

Conductive wireless charging, by contrast, can juice up mobile devices at the same speed and efficiency as the wall outlet, but it requires contact between the device and the charging surface.

Weinstein’s ambitions for FLI Charge go well beyond the classroom. The Indiegogo campaign was a proof of concept and competence that enabled FLI Charge to win the confidence of potential partners and sign some licensing deals.

“Our business model has always been: B2B will drive B2C, and we think power and charging has applicability in every sector,” says Weinstein.

We’ve already seen the technology used to power in-room iPads for a New York hotel, and it’s about to roll into classrooms and offices, but FLI Charge has a lot more in the pipeline.

Sadly, the need for a conductive surface and the success of Qi probably rules out smartphones for the foreseeable future, but you can expect to see the technology integrated into laptops, power tools, drones, and other devices, with power delivery built in to furniture and other new form factors.

“2018 is the year for commercialization and getting it out there,” Weinstein says. “Long term, we see it replacing the plug altogether and our surfaces replace the outlet.”

For now, Juice Mobile Power solves a tangible problem in a clever way and it gives FLI Charge a chance to showcase the advantages of conductive wireless charging. Only time will tell if it will take off in the way Weinstein envisions, but having seen Juice Mobile Power in action, we wouldn’t bet against it.

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