07 Jun ZeroWire could propel Milwaukee startup
Milwaukee, Wis. – Brad Rake knew the prospects for testing and funding his wireless invention were good when he got a higher-up from the U.S. Air Force to discuss the technology at length during a cold call earlier this year.
Various consultants assured Rake, the founder and principal of upstart Esker Technologies, that this was out of the ordinary and a very promising sign, indeed.
That was validated last month when Esker received a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I grant to test the feasibility of ZeroWire, which virtually eliminates the need for complex wiring systems and harnesses in cars, boats, airplanes, and other vehicular applications.
Esker’s grant, which is just under the Phase I maximum of $100,000, is to test the feasibility of implementing ZeroWire in surveillance satellites.
Rake and his chief engineer, Keith Lamon, are partnering with the University of Wisconsin Space Science and Engineering Center (SSEC) and the Air Force to determine if the technology that makes ZeroWire work will operate in space. If successful, ZeroWire could eventually be deployed in space tracking and surveillance systems for the Department of Defense.
“I don’t have any space experience, so that’s why we partnered with UW,” says Rake, who has a 25-year background as an automotive industrial designer, and operates what amounts to a virtual company he started in 2003 with just himself and two others.
“What we proposed is that we have this first-generation technology that we can transmit over the [existing] power line. We will look at testing it at UW, and they will likely do some testing at the Air Force. We’ll do a very basic prototype they can test. A huge benefit of this is to reduce the payload from the weight of the wires.”
Less is more
ZeroWire transmits data that controls switches over an existing power line. For years, this has been done on AC circuits, which is not as challenging, Rake says. What Esker has done is to develop this concept using low voltage current, or DC systems, which is much more challenging and sensitive to interference.
“We don’t have a product yet, but we are close to one for cars, trucks, and boats – basically things that use DC power, like buses,” Rake says.
Actually, the first application of ZeroWire was sent to the Whittier, Calif.-based Lime Works Speed Shop in January for use in custom-built cars. The technology is relatively inexpensive to produce, which could make it attractive for large-scale applications, he adds.
The way the technology works is by incorporating modules that transmit a coded signal across an existing power line. A circuit board in the module takes a command, puts it into a digitized code, and transmits it out over the power BUS to the entire system every time there is signal input.
In addition to eliminating wires, ZeroWire represents a much simpler diagnostic system, Rake says. If there is a problem, it can be localized very quickly, either in the module, or the module will point to the faulty component. With a conventional wire harness system, engineers have to check the wire at the input, and the receiving end, to make sure power is there, which is a time-consuming process.
Because wires packed tightly together in a harness can result in “noise” or interference, satellite launches can experience expensive delays. Currently, re-integrating wires can exceed four months in a conventional satellite system. The Air Force wants to get that timeline down to two or three days, and ultimately, six hours.
“The challenge is that it can take a lot of time to troubleshoot, and this is frequently when it is ready to launch, and they have to shut it down,” Rake says. “By eliminating a lot of wires, you are eliminating potential causes of failure. As it is right now, it takes a long time to go through this point-to-point testing.
“If you can transmit over the power line, you aren’t carrying a signal that can be interfered with,” Rake says of ZeroWire. “In the power BUS system, you just check the modules and make sure that the power line is working properly.”
Taking it to the next level
If all goes well, Esker Technologies will be in line for a Phase II SBIR grant that could be as much as $750,000. Essentially, Phase I is for testing and improvement, while Phase II is for development.
“The two big plusses are that it eliminates wires, and reduces cost and weight,” Rake says. “It becomes more reliable. It’s easier to check that everything is functional, and potentially it will be self-diagnostic, so that you can check the system from a control room when the satellite is on the launch pad. Long-range, you might be able to do those system checks when the satellite is in space.”
The system can be used with its own backup system, so that in case of a failure, communication can be re-routed. Conventional wiring systems typically have to have two systems for backup capability. ZeroWire, if designed properly, will have its own backup system without duplication. Another advantage of ZeroWire is that it can be retrofitted into systems that are already in place.
“Think of a yacht where you want to add the latest and greatest weather station. With a very small circuit, we can bring our system by tapping into the power line that is on the mast… so you are just transmitting over existing power,” Rake says. “In existing aircraft, you can install a ZeroWire system as backup.
“So, we are looking at multiple applications, more than just satellites. It can be used in military vehicles of all types, other aircraft. It’s potentially very big.”
Rake has a patent pending fore ZeroWire. While conducting a patent search, he says he didn’t find anyone that has come up with anything that compares with the technology. But, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t encountered some resistance along the way.
“What I find with new technology, the most common thing you always hear once you get inside the engineering department is that someone is already doing it, or, they say, `It can’t be done or we’d be doing it.’ We have shown this technology to some big names, and they are intrigued.”