The Internet of [Temporary] Things

A worldwide race is on to master the production of flexible, biodegradable, low-cost alternatives.

Sensors fill the world with an endless stream of data on every aspect of our lives.

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By Drew Turney

The following is an excerpt from the article “The Internet of [Temporary] Things”, which appears in the current edition of Cosmos magazine. To subscribe, click here.

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 into disposable materials means you can be your very own Internet of Things.

While you might think current IoT is pretty varied (sensors recording the temperature in a house for your smart home app, movement in an electric toothbrush to make sure the kids are brushing properly, or the wear on your brake pads so you know when to replace them), they’re all essentially based on electronics.

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, temperature and more.

RFI microchip.

Steven Puetzer

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.

Silicon electronic sensors cost between 10 and 50 US cents and are suitable for use in consumer products worth $100 and up, such as phones and fitness trackers.

Alissa Fitzgerald, founder of MEMS manufacturer AM Fitzgerald, estimates disposable sensors will need to be made for less than one cent if they’re used for items costing around $10 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. 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 1¢ per square centimetre.

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 (and using safer, more benign materials) – from T-shirts and bananas to skin and body parts.

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 GSM, UMTS and LTE cellular signals, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a handful of others.

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. It sounds like double Dutch, but in fact you’ve already used it – it’s the basis for radio frequency ID (RFID) and NFC systems we’ve had for many years in retail anti-theft, self-checkout and tap-to-pay.

Putting a $1 battery on a supermarket shrink wrap that costs less than a cent 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 (think of blood glucose test strips), we need to look elsewhere – and the most likely solution at the moment seems to be passive power.

Just as an RFID tag only comes to life when it’s in the presence of a reader, 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, orientation to 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 inside – and out – 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 mini wind farm.

When biomedicine does move beyond lithium or cell batteries it will open the field exponentially.

In today’s data-driven world, is it possible to make too much information? In 2017, IT platform provider 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 two-and-a-half 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), a jump of over 31,000 times.

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.”

Paris-based author and strategist Rahaf Harfoush, who honed her expertise about technology and innovation at the World Economic Forum, thinks 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.

“We’re shifting from an age of data abundance to integrative data,” she says. “It’s the difference between someone Googling about weight-loss tips and being targeted by advertisers versus their smart fridge sharing information about their weight and the food they buy via obscure and overly-legal agreements.

“It becomes even more true as datasets are integrated with each other to form more complex and accurate profiles of us.”

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 that 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.

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