Energy Harvesting for Beacons

Some of the latest innovations in beacons are related to how they are powered. When beacons can be self-powered it greatly reduces maintenance, improves convenience and removes wastage (of batteries).

As we have previously mentioned, Wiliot is pioneering the use of Radio Frequency (RF) energy harvesting. There’s a very recent Wiliot article Nano-Watt Computing that explains how Wiliot are harvesting RF energy in such as way as to charge a capacitor that, periodically charged, can be used to power a beacon.

RF isn’t the only way to charge a capacitor. Recent research from Japan on Ultra-low-power energy harvester for microbial fuel cells and its application to environmental sensing and long-range wireless data transmission shows how Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) can be used to power a Bluetooth beacon.

Microbial fuel cells (MFCs) generate electricity directly from organic matter contained in aquatic sediment, soil, and domestic wastewater. The research describes UPEM, the first harvester that takes real-time measurements of temperature and humidity, CO2 sensing and provides iBeacon and LoRa transmission using a single MFC.

Inside Wiliot

Mr Beacon has a new video showing what’s inside Wiliot – inside their offices, factory and inside their battery-less Bluetooth sensor tag.

The video explains how the tag has two processors. The first, a standard ARM Cortex M0, is used for main processing while the second works using only extremely low, nano Watts of, power. The low power processor schedules jobs for the Cortex M0 for when the tag has harvested enough energy.

Wiliot are mixing the best of the Bluetooth and RFID ecosystems. They are taking RFID-like production and costs and combining it with the advantages of Bluetooth’s ability to communicate with ubiquitous devices.

Wiliot To Enable New Beacon Usecases

We mentioned Wiliot last March and since then their R&D team has created early engineering samples that prove it’s possible to create a battery-less Bluetooth LE beacon harvesting energy from radio frequencies (RF).

The Wiliot device looks more like a RFID tag than a traditional beacon in that it’s supplied as a very thin PVC inlay sheet containing the chip and wire antenna together. The thin form factor, no battery and the relatively low cost will allow it to be manufactured into or stuck onto clothing and packaging that will provide for many new usecases.

Producing such a device isn’t easy as it can’t use existing System On a Chip (SoC) devices as produced by Nordic, Dialog and Texas Instruments (TI) because they are too large and use too much power. Wiliot has had to create their own SoC from the ground up, including software tools to develop and program the devices. We have been told it will be a year before Wilot has all the components in place for commercial rollout. Meanwhile, selected organisations can join the Early Advantage Program (EAP). There’s a new a product overview (PDF below) that explains the EAP and the main usecases, connected packaging, connected apparel, logistics and asset tracking:

Wiliot already have Early Advantage Program (EAP) agreements in place with over a dozen brands including top fashion brands, a telco, appliance companies, a furniture brand and packaging companies.

Wiliot Set to Disrupt the Beacon Industry

Last week we met with Steve Statler, better known as Mr Beacon. Steve has joined Wiliot at their SVP Marketing & Business Development.

Wiliot are interesting because they have the potential to disrupt the beacon industry. They have secured $19m in funding to create ultra thin beacons that use energy harvesting rather than batteries. In order to do this, they will become a semiconductor company much like Nordic, TI, Dialog and NXP whose system on a chip (SoC) products are used in existing beacons. Wiliot will create their own SoC that will be packaged much like current NFC tags that can be stuck onto things.

Proof of concepts are scheduled for 2H 2018 with production in mid 2019. The aim is to sell millions of these things in products such as clothing, packaging, electronics and toys. This scale will mean they will only cost of the order of tens of cents/euros/pounds. While Wiliot expect their beacons to be manufactured into things, they expect to offer stand-alone ‘stickers’ that can be attached to anything. They also plan versions with sensors that might also disrupt the IoT industry.

Energy harvesting will take energy from the airwaves from WiFi and similar 2.4GHz products, including ironically, other beacons! They won’t get much energy this way so the range will be small, a few meters, for initial devices. They aim to improve the range in later product iterations, presumably through the use of better energy storage devices such as supercapacitors.

We will be following Wiliot, hope to stock their products and will be offering consultancy and development based on their technology.