A few weeks ago I harped on the lack of new energy harvesting technologies because I am a big believer that having to change batteries or hard-wire every connected sensor out there will severely limit the spread of the internet of things. So I was so excited to learn about Wiliot, an Israeli company that is building location beacons that don’t require a battery.
Wiliot is a semiconductor company that harvests energy from wireless signals to power a Bluetooth tag. The tag contains a Bluetooth radio, a tiny brain (it’s an ARM M-0 processor) and sensors. The entire package should cost less than a $1 and find its way into physical goods so they can be tracked or so people can interact with them.
The startup was formed in January and has since raised $19 million from investors that include Qualcomm and Merck. Steve Statler, VP of marketing and business development at Wiliot, says the company has signed pilot projects with companies in the asset tracking and packaged goods sector to test the tag in the second half of next year. The actual tag will be available in 2019.
This is a long-term bet on passive Bluetooth as a replacement for RFID or as a new way to connect products to consumers. In a manufacturing setting, companies currently use RFID to scan parts or materials at various points in the manufacturing process so the plant managers know how production is going. With passive Bluetooth tags, each product could communicate with a hub on the floor to broadcast its location and state.
Statler says he’s working with an automotive parts company to implement such a project. These passive Bluetooth tags would also be handy in hospitals where companies like Cassia are trying to use Bluetooth beacons to track important (and expensive) equipment. Use of the tags replaces battery-powered beacons that cost more and require someone to change the batteries.
In packaged goods, the big opportunity is in connecting consumers with product companies and assuring that a particular product is authentic. Statler expects lower-cost passive Bluetooth tags could be embedded in products like the lid on your prescription drug bottle or even your expensive anti-aging cream the data from that tag communicates its authenticity to an app. In medicine it could also be used to determine if a person is adhering to the drug regime.
For consumer packaged goods, the Bluetooth sensor tag might convey information to the product maker about how often someone uses the product, if it is being stored properly and even let them know if it is about to run out. As a consumer I’m somewhat creeped out about my mascara telling Clinique to ramp up production because my tube is almost empty, but I can see why it would be exciting to companies. And I would like to know if my expensive skin products were exposed to formula-ruining heat or were counterfeit.
The competition to Wiliot in these use cases are RFID tags, QR Codes (on packages goods) or high cost of anti-counterfeiting devices.
Wiliot is not the only company trying to break through with wireless energy harvesting or some kind of passive “smart tag.” Psikick is another such company building energy harvesting radios and sensors. Neither of these companies are using wireless power, which is actually a different type of wireless energy harvesting that requires a greater power output.
So Wiliot isn’t alone in its effort, and we won’t see a sensor tag until 2019 for general use, but it’s certainly a product that brings the internet of things to humdrum reality.