Startup Aira Aims to Replicate Apple’s Canceled Wireless Charger

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Apple Inc. in 2017 unveiled a charger for iPhones, AirPods and other products that promised users a feature no company had been able to perfect: the ability to put multiple devices anywhere on a single mat to juice them all up wirelessly.

Then, in 2019, Apple canceled the product, called AirPower, saying that the device failed to achieve its “high standards.” One of the main issues with the product was the risk that it would overheat, Bloomberg News reported at the time.

More than a year after AirPower’s demise, Apple is developing a less ambitious wireless charger for the iPhone. But while the Silicon Valley giant works on that product, Aira Inc., a startup based in Chandler, Arizona, this week is rolling out a technology called FreePower that aims to deliver on the original promise of AirPower, and works for devices from different manufacturers, including those from Google and Samsung Electronics Co. -- not just Apple.

Current wireless chargers on the market use a technology known as Qi, which relies on a round set of coils that, when placed below a corresponding coil in a phone, for example, charges the device. Customers often have to make sure the phone is placed in a particular position to ensure a connection.

Aira said its technology is different because it uses thin coils printed into a circuit board instead of wire-wound coils, which require precise placement and more delicate manufacturing.

Startup Aira Aims to Replicate Apple’s Canceled Wireless Charger

Compared with the planned AirPower, the FreePower technology has two drawbacks. It can’t charge an Apple Watch, which Aira attributes to that device’s proprietary charger. Unlike the AirPower, Aira’s technology also can’t allow an iPhone to show the charging status of other devices on the mat.

In a recent test, the Aira system sometimes paused or slowed charging on a device because it confused that gadget with another one on the mat that had already finished charging. Aira said this is due to a bug with the algorithm the company uses to avoid the overheating issue. This was a problem that plagued Apple’s AirPower mat, too.

“When a device is at a high charge level, it will request less power to cool itself down as it finishes the charge cycle,” Aira said in a statement. “In some cases, the thermal algorithm managing this process can be falsely triggered when multiple devices are charging simultaneously, limiting power to all devices.” In the recent test, this issue was triggered by an Android phone and AirPods sitting on the mat alongside an iPhone.

The company said the glitch will be fixed in a firmware update coming to the units shipping to consumers next month.

Co-Founder Jake Slatnick said Aira built all the parts that went into its technology -- the “full stack” -- unlike other wireless-charger makers that procure chips and coils from different manufacturers. The company said that its charging speeds are supposed to be comparable to most products already on the market despite using lower wattage specifications.

Unlike rivals, Aira is licensing its technology to third parties. Nomad Goods Inc. is launching the first accessory, a jumbo wireless charger that in the recent test simultaneously charged the biggest iPhone, AirPods and a large Android phone.

“We’re more than the guys who want to integrate into a charger,” Slatnick said, adding that he imagines the technology eventually being built into desks and surfaces inside cars. For the immediate future, it will be integrated into more chargers this year.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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