Imagine a self-powered Industrial Internet–a network of sensor-fitted smart machines and devices communicating with each other without batteries or any other source of power. You might not need to imagine for long, as battery-less sensors and networks are starting to appear on the horizon.

Self-powered chips

Virginia-based startup PsiKick is developing an ultra-low-power wireless System on Chip (SoC) that can be powered without a battery. The company claims that their chip needs a hundred to thousand times less power than other comparable chips. They have already tested their chip design in a wearable EKG monitor that runs entirely on body heat. This self-powered chip could be used in sensors embedded across devices, objects, and buildings to create a seamless network of sensor-fitted machines.

These ultra-low power chips work by using sub-threshold processing. Normally, the transistors in circuits can switch 'on', with current flowing through them, or switch 'off', with no current flowing through them. In theory, transistors with a supply voltage below threshold are considered to be always 'off'. But in reality the transistor drain current does not immediately fall to zero. Sub-threshold processing utilizes this ordinarily unwanted leakage current to perform useful operations, thus reducing the need to switch to the more power-hungry 'on' state. This leakage of energy is harvested to perform operations, ultimately lowering the overall energy consumption.

PsiKick is not alone. ARM Holdings, the British microchip company that licenses designs for many mobile processors, and IMEC, a microelectronic research center based in Belgium as well as several others are working on developing chips that can function on ultra-low power.

Let's re-use Wi-Fi

If the devices fitted with low power chips use the communication system developed at the University of Washington, they could connect to Wi-Fi infrastructure without any batteries also. Called Wi-Fi Backscatter, the technology enables small devices to communicate using the power that they harvest from radio frequency signals. These devices send messages by scattering signals from other sources and recycling existing radio waves to connect battery-free devices to the Wi-Fi infrastructure.

The weakest link in the chain

It's easy to see how these battery-free alternatives for connecting smart machines could be a big deal.

Batteries seem to be the weakest link in the Industrial Internet chain at a time when sensor-adoption is on a roll across the world. According to the PwC’s latest Annual Digital IQ survey, 20% of companies are investing in sensors and 14% think sensors will be of top strategic importance in the next three to five years. For instance, the manufacturing sector needs sensors to monitor and optimize machine usage in plants; power and utility companies deploy smart meters to measure power usage habits and retailers collect customers and supply chain data.

Conventional power-hungry devices simply won't meet the requirements, as wireless sensors become ubiquitous and crucial to the industrial world as predicted by the PWC survey. Get ready for these ultra-low power chips and self-sufficient connectivity solutions will fuel the Industrial Internet.

About the author

Pragati Verma