“Imagine a printable computer the size of a postage stamp with RAM, ROM, onboard sensors, certified Bluetooth, an ARM CPU, flash memory, and secure communications that does not need a battery and harvests all required energy from ambient radio waves
And it costs, literally, pennies.
It’s not science fiction. It’s the Wiliot bluetooth tag, and it is potentially the future of the internet of things.
“We’re making a computer the size of a postage stamp that powers itself by harvesting radio frequency energy,” Wiliot senior VP Stephen Statler told me recently on the TechFirst podcast. “We’re surrounded by energy, and it’s really just been waiting for someone to tap into it, and that’s what we are doing. So we have this tag, we actually — these are computers, they look like stickers but they’re actually three core ARM processors. They have RAM, ROM, flash memory, secure communications. They can sense … it’s basically a chip, which is glued onto several antennas.”
t’s also not yet entirely science fact.
The chip exists, it’s shipping, and it does what Statler says it does. But the cost right now is “under a dollar.” Version two will sell in 2021 for between 10 and 50 cents, and version three, Statler says, will get “down to single digit pennies.”
Current cost aside, the Wiliot IoT tag is a marvel of engineering. On one tiny printable tag you have a nanowatt ARM processor with all the pieces you’d associate with a (very tiny) computer: RAM and ROM memory, a CPU, a custom operating system, and input/output. The input is from onboard sensors for temperature or motion or even chemical changes, and the output is in encrypted Bluetooth-based communications that any Bluetooth-capable smartphone can read.
But there’s no battery.
And no onboard way of generating power.
Instead, the Wiliot IoT tags capture ambient radio waves and use them to power the micro computer for incredibly short periods of time. In other words, when this almost microscopically small computer operates, it runs for about a second at a time.
“We are just surrounded by this sea of energy,” Statler says. “We’ve got FM radio. You’ve got television. You’ve got digital radio and TV. You have different kinds of cell phone signals: 2G, 3G, 5G … all using all loads of different bandwidths. You have WiFi, … you have ZigBee controlling your lights. Now Amazon’s got these cameras and doorbells that are using a technology called LoRa which is down at 900 megahertz.”
Of course, all these signals are weak. What Wiliot does is capture these very weak signals, “absorb” them into the chip, and run the computer. Because there’s no battery, the tag is smaller and more environmentally friendly. It’s also cheaper.
Most importantly, however, no battery means never having to change a battery.
And that means you can embed the IoT tag into whatever you want: components, products, clothing, packaging … all at a low cost and with no maintenance, Statler says. That opens up a host of possibilities:
Tracking the location of medication and its temperature (think Covid-19 vaccines that must be kept below a certain temperature)
Ensuring food products never get too warm for safety
Checking the level of a liquid in a container
Checking the consistency or dilution of a liquid
Sensing when circuits or open or connections are broken.
All of that sensing is actually done in the cloud, ingeniously. The chip senses a chemical change in the consistency of a liquid, for instance, by reporting changes in radio signal properties to the cloud, where cloud-based analysis can interpret them and report what’s actually happening. In a similar way, while the raw sensing that detects temperature changes happens locally, there is no thermometer on the chip. Rather, cloud-based code interprets environmental changes.
Making all of this technology available for pennies is a game-changer, of course. But the big game-changer isn’t just in the cost of the tags, Statler says. It’s in the cost of the sensing infrastructure.
Traditional RFID tags require expensive sensing technology, apparently.
“They tend to have very expensive infrastructure … thousands and thousands of dollars versus the cost of a phone or another Bluetooth device,” Statler says. “So the cost of Wiliot tags is the cost of the infrastructure, which tends to be much, much lower.”
Getting the cost down is the key to making IoT ubiquitous. The industry has already gotten basic IoT sensor costs down to around 40 cents, about a third of what they were in 2004. But getting infrastructure costs down too — and avoiding hidden costs like high cellular fees — is important too.
Wiliot plans to get its tags down below that cost, but RFID tags will continue to get cheaper too. The core differentiator will have to be the additional capability that the tiny computer Wiliot includes on its sensor offers.
And that’s exactly what Statler is looking to do.
That includes supply chain and demand chain, where 20-30% of slack can be reduced globally by companies knowing exactly in real time where every component of every product is, and orchestrating the dance of production to near perfection. There’s hundreds of billions in potential global savings there.
But it also includes authenticating and managing personally owned artifacts, like clothing. And that’s where the secure encrypted communications capability of the chip becomes important.
“I’m paying a lot of money for this watch or this suit,” Statler told me. “I want to know that it really is a Calvin Klein suit, and so there’s anti-counterfeit. But also, if the product’s connected in the store, why do we need a cash register? Why not just walk out of the store with it and take it home?”
And, of course, it goes beyond initial purchase. If you re-sell an item, now you can guarantee that it is genuine. You can also give a buyer a digital history of the article, with age and wear information. And you can officially transfer ownership of that item to the new owner.
The chip’s encryption is important for corporate security as well as personal security.
IoT is one of the biggest risk factors for cybersecurity. “Even if the chance of one device being accessed by a perpetrator is small, the large number of IoT devices being brought into businesses can create a significant security risk,” says antivirus provider Avast.
“IoT is wonderful in many ways,” development firm IntellectSoft says. “But unfortunately, technology has not matured yet, and it is not entirely safe.”
Done well, however, it will enable previously unimaginable opportunities.
“This is where the circular economy comes in … you can free up the space in your wardrobe,” Statler says. “And, it’ll be probably a better product because your washing machine will say, ‘Oh, I know this product. I know this serial number. I know exactly how it needs to be cared for. I can adjust the wash settings. I can even spot when you put the red shirt and the white shirt in the washing machine at the same time.’”
The same goes for recycling: products can now tell recyclers what they are, which would enable much more efficient processing and recovery of valuable resources.
For now, that’s all in the future. Wiliot has raised $70 million from investors including Amazon, Samsung, Qualcomm, and RFID giant Avery Dennison to make it a reality, but there’s plenty of work to do to realize the complete vision.
And it’s a big vision indeed.
“It’s a world where everything is connected,” Statler says. “It’s a world where we can have, I think, a cleaner planet by making less stuff, that lasts longer, that’s better quality.””