Drew Turney* says a worldwide race is on to master the production of flexible, biodegradable, low-cost alternatives to IoT sensors.
You’ve heard of the Internet of Things (IoT), where a sensor is put into every tool, device, computer or machine from a mobile right up to a factory?
Billions of readings from millions of microchips report on the performance of computers, planes, server farms, fridges, energy plants, lamps and everything in between.
And, according to market intelligence firm IHS Markit, the number of IoT devices will balloon to over 125 billion by 2030.
The last boundary of data collection is from non–silicon-based systems like clothes, food, the environment or even our own bodies.
Welcome to the Internet of Disposable Things (IoDT), where temporary or ultra-cheap sensors are embedded or affixed to any number of inexpensive media that aren’t computer based.
Pretty much everything in the world has a container or wrapper around it (even we do, in the form of garments) — and now the technology to manufacture and embed low-powered, single-use sensors in disposable materials means you can be your very own IoT.
One of the critical advances ushering in the disposable sensor world is microelectromechanical systems, or MEMS.
Most MEMS sensors are made on silicon wafers, just like computer chips, but use tiny mechanical structures that respond to some physical stimulus like pressure, movement, light or temperature.
Only a few millimetres in size, they can express readings as electrical signals and — when attached to an equally tiny radio antenna — send data to a nearby receiver.
Alissa Fitzgerald, founder of MEMS manufacturer AM Fitzgerald, estimates disposable sensors will need to be made for less than 17 cents if they’re used for items costing around $17 in the medical, food, fitness, package tracking or garment fields.
That means the market rate for silicon would need to be about a fifth of what it is today (fat chance).
In 2017, Belgian researchers built a printed plastic near-field communication (NFC) chip out of indium, gallium, zinc and oxygen.
The NFC is essential for contactless payment systems and other proximity-based technologies.
The researchers aim to make their chips refined enough for high-volume manufacturing that they can be produced to the tune of around 17 ¢ per sq cm.
As similar research to manufacture IoDT devices using inexpensive materials continues, it will further drive the price down and make sensors available for ever cheaper uses.
Getting the data is half the job; reporting it to a computer or app that can make sense of it is the other.
Your ubiquitous mobile or tablet is an obvious candidate to receive and synthesise all the new IoDT data, but mobile phones understand specific signals.
What if your telemetry is a simple electrical charge, a chemical reaction, a shift in air pressure or a subtle temperature variation?
Of course, we have tools that can speak all those languages — a voltmeter, blood sugar monitor, barometer and thermometer, respectively — but they’re not found in the average smartphone (yet).
Until they are, designers have to resort to new tools to listen in.
One of the most popular is the passive coil, which transmits by induction rather than by active signalling.
Putting a $1.20 battery on a supermarket shrink wrap that costs less than 17 cents won’t just drive the price of goods and handling unfeasibly high, it’ll be an environmental nightmare.
In the absence of power sources that cost a fraction of packaging, clothes or medical devices, we need to look elsewhere — and the most likely solution at the moment seems to be passive power.
Many IoDT devices need to extract power from their environment to work when they’re called for and not before.
And there’s no lack of sources, from the movement of blood in a vein to the release of gas from food, gravity and everything in between.
Since the natural home of many disposable sensors will be the human body, it makes perfect sense to use our heat, movement and chemistry to power them.
Blood pulsing past a sensor could act like a waterfall over a turbine, and the movement of air in and out of our lungs would nicely replicate the operations of a wind farm.
When biomedicine does move beyond lithium or cell batteries it will open the field exponentially.
Is it possible to make too much information?
In 2017, IT platform provider Domo.com released research that estimated we collectively produced 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day.
That’s 2,500,000,000,000,000,000 bytes — or 2.5 million terabytes.
Late in 2019, market intelligence provider IDC said IoT data would continue to balloon, reaching 79.4 zettabytes (79,400,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes).
Now imagine what happens if we factor in communications between every sock, jogging shoe, bucket of fried chicken, bottle of soft drink and headache pill.
“Big” won’t come close to doing justice to such a deluge.
But with bigger data will come bigger privacy concerns, says Monica Eaton-Cardone, founder and COO of US financial services company Chargebacks911.
“Interestingly, it could very well be that our fear of data breaches triggers a demand for disposable IoT devices,” she says.
“Something that only temporarily tracks your personal data might be perceived as less risky than a device used over many years.”
The biggest question of the IoDT age will be data sovereignty and our rights when so much more about us is being recorded and transmitted.
But while there are certainly data storage and security concerns that need to be addressed if this is all going to enjoy mass economic and consumer adoption, the benefits will far outweigh the risks.
By applying other methodologies like machine learning to the flood of information the world around us will generate, it’s possible we’ll be able to connect dots we never knew existed to further improve society.
Not only will trains, planes and factory equipment work for us better, the Internet of Disposable Things will see to it that food, medicine and product packaging do so too.
* Drew Turney is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles.
This article first appeared at cosmosmagazine.com/technology.