Battery-Free Bluetooth Tracking Tags From Wiliot
The difficulty with trying to stay on top of emerging technologies is that they change so quickly. While sometimes it’s just an old technology packaged with a new name, in many cases there are concepts – often with more than one name – that are truly new and exciting. That’s what we thought about this whole notion of digital twins, so we dedicated an entire article to talking about how the factories of tomorrow will have digital representations that can then be analyzed and – you guessed it – optimized by a bunch of hungry machine learning algorithms. A digital twin is really just a manifestation of the “Internet of Things” or IoT which has been around for a while, but is taking new shapes because of new technologies like Ultra Wideband which let us track the positioning of sensors down to fractions of an inch. If you think that’s cool, you haven’t seen anything yet. Check out these battery-free bluetooth tracking tags being developed by an Israeli firm called Wiliot.
Founded in 2017, Israeli firm Wiliot has taken in a total of $50 million in funding to develop “the first-ever sticker-sized Bluetooth sensor tag incorporating an ARM processor powered solely by scavenging energy from ambient radio frequencies.” In other words, they’ve developed a chip that literally pulls power out of the air. Not surprisingly, investors in their last round – a $30 million Series B round that closed last week – included names like Amazon (AMZN), Qualcomm (QCOM), Samsung (005930:KS), and Avery Dennison (AVY), an $8 billion packaging materials company.
Update 02/18/2020: Wiliot has raised $20 million in additional funding to support its customers’ pilot projects and to further develop their line of battery-free Bluetooth tags. This brings the company’s total funding to $69 million to date.
At the start of 2018, all the company had were some ideas on how to create battery-free Bluetooth tracking tags powered by Radio Frequency (RF) signaling like Wi-Fi, but no proof that it was possible. The Wiliot engineers taped out five prototype chip designs last year, and the end result seems almost unbelievable. A Wiliot chip glued to a simple antenna – printed on plastic or paper – can authenticate the proximity of a product by transmitting an encrypted serial number along with weight and temperature data from a device the size of a postage stamp with no battery as a power source.
The chips can even connect to external force-sensing materials that can measure weight and pressure, allowing them to tell when a product is picked up off a shelf. Wiliot is able to do all that without a battery because they are able to recycle the wasted signals from the plethora of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and cellular products that surround us.
Too Good to Be True?
“It’s hard to imagine how a sticker the size of a US postage stamp can power itself and talk Bluetooth to a phone,” says the company, and many people are probably thinking the same thing. Such a technology is truly amazing, and the fact that such prominent investors have poured money into the firm leads one to believe that this isn’t vaporware. While we have seen things that seem too good to be true fail spectacularly (cough, Theranos, cough), one can be sure that no eyelash-batting was used to convince investors of this caliber who would have certainly demanded to vet the prototype and see what’s under the hood.
“We believe that disposable electronics based on battery-free, low-cost systems are the foundation for future IoT systems,” says the company, and they’re exactly right. Imagine being able to track literally anything with a cheap self-powered sensor. The retail use case is just the tip of the iceberg.
Wiliot technology will be available for sampling in 2019 via their Early Advantage Program, and it is slated to be opened to everybody else later in 2020. These Bluetooth tracking tags are said to be so inexpensive that they can be disposable and produced in quantities that will eventually grow, not to billions, but to trillions.
While throughout today, Americans got their rocks off by discussing whether or not Pete Davidson’s ex-fiancé ripped off Soulja Boy’s Pretty Boy Swag in her new artistic masterpiece, 7 Rings, we’re inclined to think they should spend more time getting excited about startups like Humatics and Wiliot that are transforming the way society functions. Bluetooth tracking tags that are powered by radio frequencies, and that could be located within fractions of an inch if they’re integrated with Humatics technology, are a pretty big deal for architects who are designing digital twins of nearly everything you can think of.
The 2,300 Walmart superstores located across ‘Murica each stock 142,000 different products – many of which are being scanned by robots. Imagine being able to track the movement of each product within each store and create a digital mock-up of the entire Walmart chain. Or if that’s entirely too boring for you to think about, imagine your smartphone telling you which outfit you wore the most in 2018. That’s where technology is taking us, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to use cases.
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