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June 8, 2016

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John Miley


An update on superthin batteries, the rising use of robots for household chores, a new transatlantic cable for social media and cloud computing, and more.

The Future for Thin, Flexible Batteries

Batteries are slimming down to power a new generation of electronics. Makers of thin batteries are starting to see products gain traction and are hearing from more customers who are interested in using the power sources for all sorts of gadgets. The batteries, which can be less than half a millimeter thick, are often printed by depositing a layer of chemicals onto thin material. Using a traditional printing method makes the process inexpensive. Of course, the batteries hold less power than bigger, thicker ones. But the price tag and multiple uses make them compelling for a range of devices for the Internet of Things.

The market for thin batteries will grow fast and will include smart cards, health patches, flexible e-readers, shipping labels, retail displays and smart clothing. The batteries can power sensors that send data via radio waves or touch screen displays for computer tasks. One example: TempTraq, a temperature-taking health patch launched in May 2015 by Blue Spark Technologies.

The product uses Bluetooth to send minute-by-minute temperature updates to a mobile phone and alerts a parent if a child's fever runs high. The $20 patch is sold in thousands of CVS and Target stores. The company plans to add additional features and build new products. "There is room for growth in activity monitoring," says Blue Spark CEO John Gannon.

Thin batteries also allow devices to run longer between charges and to recharge quickly. "Charging fast really changes the game," says Shreefal Mehta, CEO of New York-based Paper Battery Co. Its quick-charge batteries can go in items that are used for short periods of time, such as power tools, augmented reality goggles and fitness wearables. The idea, says Mehta, is to have a few hours of usage with just a few minutes of charge time. The batteries can wrap around a conventional lithium-ion battery, too, to assist in computational tasks that require a lot of power.

Thin batteries can now tolerate more manufacturing processes as well. Batteries from BrightVolt, for instance, survive lamination at 284 degrees Fahrenheit and are less than half a millimeter thick. Other innovations in the lab include transparent batteries for clear electronic patches or transparent displays. Additional thin-battery companies include Imprint Energy, FlexEl and Cymbet Corp. Apple, Samsung and other tech giants are also working on thin-battery technology. (Continues below.)

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Robots Make Inroads in the Home

More consumer robots are lending a helping hand with household chores. The market for bots that vacuum carpets, mop floors, clean pools and mow lawns is growing fast, with sales set to surge about 18% per year for the next five years, according to Philip Solis, research director at ABI Research. "What's driving the market is the addition of new products," says Solis. Massachusetts-based iRobot leads the $1.5-billion global market with its popular vacuum robots, which use advanced software and sensors to navigate floors. This year, iRobot will unveil a robotic lawn mower, launching itself into the largest segment of the home upkeep market. Other robot makers looking to cash in include Neato, Dyson, Samsung, LG and Robomow. By 2025, robots that help around the house will account for about $6 billion in global sales, according to ABI Research.

In a few years, expect robots to perform an expanded repertoire of household tasks. A recently announced robot helps fold laundry, for example. It's not hard to imagine drones specially designed to inspect a roof, wash windows or trim tall branches. Household bots will slowly but surely cut into the market for services performed by humans. In some European countries where labor costs are high, vacuuming and lawn mowing robots already pay off quickly. Even if they don't fully replace human workers, the systems allow homeowners to rely less on household cleaners and lawn services. Robot vacuums, for instance, can be set to run daily to avoid heavy dirt buildup.

Don't expect prices to fall that much for household robots in coming years. Costs range from $200 to $2,100, but newer systems packed with upgraded technology tend to cost more. IRobot's latest vacuum costs $900. New models will have Wi-Fi to connect to smart home systems, plus other upgrades, such as better battery life and simpler mobile apps. For the spendthrift, iRobot recently launched a $200 mopping robot, though the disposable wipes it uses aren't included.

Web Giants' Plans for Undersea Cable

A new undersea Internet cable is set to give an edge to Facebook and Microsoft. Rising data demands led to the plan to build a 4,000-mile fiber-optic cable from Virginia to Spain. The two tech giants will privately own the $400-million cable, which will rapidly ferry photos, videos and other digital data across the Atlantic Ocean. "They need tremendous amounts of capacity, and this helps future-proof their networks," says Tim Stronge, an analyst at TeleGeography.

Web giants are pushing to build cables but aren't rushing to share them with other firms. Facebook and Microsoft want ample capacity for future needs. Initially, they'll use about 10% of the capacity of the 160 terabits-per-second pipe, the highest-capacity transatlantic cable to date. The cable will be completed in 2017 and is being built by Telefònica-owned Telxius.

"There's still a role for traditional telecom operators," says Michael Ruddy, director of international research at Terabit Consulting. Traditional telecom firms still operate and build most of the cables in the multibillion-dollar industry, and their technical expertise is needed even when Internet firms own the cables. AT&T, Verizon and other telecom companies are likely to take a fresh look at such projects.

The new cable underscores a larger trend: Web companies are vying to play a big role in telecom infrastructure. Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other firms have ramped up hiring in the fields of fiber optics, satellites, radio engineering and related technologies.

Tech Tidbits

Microsoft wants its Windows operating system to be the go-to platform for virtual reality. The recently unveiled Windows Holographic lets coders build apps for virtual and augmented reality on any Windows 10 device, including Microsoft's new headset, HoloLens. But Microsoft will have to battle Apple and Google, both working on similar software and hardware.

Federal telecom regulators will keep an eye on a recent study linking cell phones to cancer in rats. The preliminary study, conducted by the National Toxicology Program, raises questions because previous large-scale studies found cell phones to be safe. The Federal Communications Commission regulates radio frequency exposure for all radio devices, including cell phones, and will follow health guidance from other federal agencies.

Intel is partnering with the biggest Asian electronics maker to build 5G tech. The chip giant is betting that 5G, the next generation of cell phone networks, presents a huge opportunity. Intel will work with Foxconn, based in Taiwan, to build experimental gear for cell networks, cloud computing and more. Intel is aiming for 5G tech that has a high profit margin.

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John Miley

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