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Low-cost IoT breakthrough
19 April 2017, News, Electronics Technology

“A wireless technology breakthrough from product design and development firm, Cambridge Consultants, is bringing the vision of ‘smart dust’ a step closer to reality,” claims a recent statement by said company. “The idea of tiny sensors embedded in paint to constantly monitor the stress on aircraft during flight, for example, could move from the realms of science fiction into the brave new world of the Internet of Things (IoT).”

While such claims might commonly be dismissed as marketing hype, the firm in question does have an impressive pedigree. Cambridge Consultants has one of the world’s largest independent wireless development teams, with more than 150 experts working in areas ranging from ultra-low-power, short-range wireless connectivity to global satellite communication. During its 56-year history, it has helped clients develop technology ranging from the world’s first wireless implanted pacing system to the ground-to-air radio system controlling air traffic over the majority of the planet. “We kick-started the Bluetooth market by being the first in the world to create a single-chip Bluetooth radio – and now we will kick-start the IoT by being the first in the world to create a fully digital radio transmitter,” says Rob Milner, head of smart systems, by way of explaining the technology behind its latest innovation.

The key is a radical shift in the cost of the most expensive part of the Bluetooth Smart chips at the heart of every connected IoT device – the radio. Cambridge Consultants has used its all-digital radio technology Pizzicato to dramatically cut the silicon cost to what it claims is just 7 cents (British) – less than a tenth of the current cost. Getting rid of the analog element of silicon radios also means they can transcend current physical barriers, as well as directly benefit from Moore’s Law – further shrinking in size, cost and power consumption with each new generation. The technology was demonstrated at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, using a network of Bluetooth beacons based on Google’s Eddystone and Apple’s iBeacon ecosystems.

Today, this could be a case of making personal care truly personal. Instead of a ‘smart’ toothbrush that tells you how well you brush your teeth, the Bluetooth Smart chips would be small enough and cheap enough to embed in each individual throwaway toothbrush head – so the toothbrush would know, for example, how often each family member was brushing their teeth.

But in the future it could mean the chips would be small enough to become smart dust. This opens the door to embedding them in paint to monitor things like aircraft stress or how vehicles are being driven, and crash impacts to help with traffic accident investigations. Mountains could be seeded with tiny temperature sensors to act as an avalanche early-warning system, and fields could be sprayed with smart dust to give real-time information about soil temperature and moisture content. Around the home, smart paint in a room could measure temperature, humidity or noise – while you could print your own smart clothing labels that could be linked to personalised washing cycles.

“To date, the cost of a radio has been determined by its analog components – until you eliminate those, Bluetooth will always be limited by the price point,” says Milner. “By massively reducing the cost of a technology that has a long range and can communicate with the billions of connected devices already deployed, we’ve helped open up more scope for revenue-generating and disruptive digital services.”

Reducing the cost of Bluetooth chips is only the first step in Cambridge Consultants’ vision for an ultra-low-cost IoT. Next steps to mature the technology involve simplifying the overall product architecture by reducing the number of components and improving ease of assembly to achieve greater cost savings. Work on battery technology, passive electronics and product housing is also under way.

For more information visit www.cambridgeconsultants.com.


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