The IoT can only succeed if organisations develop a minimum viable device to slash costs, says Rob Milner, head of smart systems at Cambridge Consultants.
On the face of it, the Internet of Things (IoT) promises a revolution in computing by connecting and harvesting data from everything. Think of it as adding a digital life to all the objects around us as we move through the world.
Expectations are certainly high. Gartner is forecasting that there will be 20 billion IoT devices online by 2020. But numbers of a different kind will be critical in whether the lofty predictions made for the IoT can ever be realised. The real issue is cost: even a few cents is too much money to add connectivity to low-value things.
To enable the IoT to grow exponentially, we must reduce the cost of connectivity far below today’s levels. This demands radical simplicity.
The 10c solution
The solution is a new category of ultra-low-cost connected devices – costing a handful of cents apiece – that are the result of today’s technological advances, and of those we can see just around the corner.
Ruthless optimisation to strip out costs would leave us with a minimum viable IoT device that requires just power, connectivity, sensing, and cloud access.
The essential elements would be:
- Wireless connectivity: based on the technologies already in smartphones.
- Range: a bubble of connectivity to avoid the need for users to enable that connectivity.
- Sensing: in a minimum viable IoT device this should be as simple as possible – for example, a trace on a circuit that gets broken, or an integrated temperature sensor.
- Permanent power: this is needed for connectivity and to make the sensor data massively more valuable. Power also allows us to determine when something has happened.
Some of the elements of a radically simple, low-cost IoT device are already in place.
Bluetooth beacons are simple transmitters that broadcast to nearby devices. Several beacon formats have arrived in recent years, with Google’s Eddystone being the most likely enabler of an ultra-low-cost IoT, in the view of Cambridge Consultants.
Here’s how it works: data is encrypted in beacon adverts that are heard by phones. If it’s an Android phone, it doesn’t even need to have an app installed, only for Google’s nearby services to be enabled. When the phone hears a new advert it forwards it to a resolving service in the cloud, which decrypts the payload.
This means that the information created by the infrastructure, and the revenue associated with it, are protected. In short, architectures such as Eddystone turn all phones into IoT gateways and enable secure monetisation in the cloud.
But today’s beacon implementations are still being hampered by price: with cost still related to the area of silicon used, the biggest single component cost is the Bluetooth chip.
But costs can already be reduced elsewhere, such as via the world’s first all-digital radio transmitter, Pizzicato. This breakthrough has removed all the analog components from silicon radios, enabling them to transcend today’s physical barriers and benefit from Moore’s Law. Of course, this means that they will shrink in size, cost, and power consumption with each new generation.
Pizzicato has enabled us to demonstrate a seven-cent Bluetooth radio – a new benchmark in low-cost IoT. But this is a price point we believe can – and will – be further reduced.
Having addressed the most expensive component of our future IoT device, we then need to look at the whole device in order to simplify it further and strip out cost. Complexity is a big problem: each additional part in a device increases the assembly costs and the number of assembly stages needed (and suppliers need margin too).
This is why it’s essential to refocus on each of the parts of a device and why they’re needed. For example, a core stage in stripping out components is achieved by moving from designing the battery into the product, to designing the product into the battery.
This shift means that we can create low-cost devices that are made using existing high-volume production techniques, but which have fewer assembly steps and fewer components.
A battery of challenges
At this point, our ultra-low-cost IoT vision is looking strong, but there remains a major problem with the approach: billions of tiny batteries in disposable devices would constitute a chemical pollution disaster. Another approach is essential.
Organic batteries have been known about for decades, and researchers are working on turning clams into batteries, for example, in projects that replicate the reactions taking place within living organisms. But a separate trend gives us cause for optimism about this kind of research: the cost of sequencing DNA is plummeting, unlocking progress across many areas of biotech.
This rapid progress is one of the reasons that Cambridge Consultants set up its own synthetic biology lab in 2016. Research groups are now reporting bio-batteries’ shelf- and operational lives measured in months and heading towards a year. From a cost perspective, there is research suggesting an enzyme cost of six cents per bio battery.
So far, we’ve taken a ruthless view on reducing cost. But what about the return?
The shift to service
With the IoT, the key strategic shift involves securing revenue from every touch point throughout a device’s life – turning every connected object into a service, in effect. And this article has suggested imagining a bubble around all connected things, within which they can use a phone as a gateway.
Consider this: even simple sensing can generate revenue. For example, think of an IoT beer bottle that can be monitored throughout its life from manufacture, bottling, and distribution, to retail, consumption, and recycling, delivering small packets of value at each stage. This might relate to temperature sensing, anti-tampering, liquid level sensing, maximising recycle rates, and more. With this approach, the Amazon Dash-style replenish button is just one of many stages delivering value in the life of a product.
In summary, this is just a small insight into current research and future trends. As such, it’s a mix of the technologies on today’s bleeding edge and speculations about the future. But we’re optimistic: we see a range of technologies just over the horizon that will strip out cost and ensure that IoT really does become the ‘Cambrian explosion’ of connectivity and data that it promises to be.
Internet of business says
A number of organisations are already on the road outlined above by Cambridge Consultants. For example, rapid prototyping specialists RPD International have been placing disposable sensors in commodity household items to gather data about the different ways they are used worldwide. Meanwhile, UAV researchers at the University of Southampton in the UK have developed the MAVIS project: fleets of printable, sensor-filled paper drones that can be released at high altitude to record extreme weather conditions or natural disasters, and create a cloud of real-time data points. However, batteries remain a sustainability challenge, and the Southampton researchers are looking at environmentally safe packaging for these as an interim measure. .chrism