By Dr. Tony Kington – CEO, Omni-ID.
Fifty years ago, the internet, let alone the internet of things, didn’t even exist. Today, the IoT spans billions of devices enabling a spectrum of use cases from short range consumer contactless payment cards to industrial asset tracking devices that can communicate over many miles.
IDC’s Worldwide Semiannual Internet of Things Spending Guide, published in June, estimates that investment in IoT, in Europe alone, will reach $202 billion in 2021. The analyst firm anticipates that the largest percentage of that figure will be spent on sensor and module hardware, followed by enterprise services, with the market for IoT software and applications also growing rapidly.
How Omni-ID fits into the ecosystem
Whether they’re traversing the globe, or orbiting it, Omni-ID enables leading enterprises to keep track of business-critical assets.
While Omni-ID is best-known for developing RFID devices for the automotive, manufacturing, logistics, aerospace and energy sectors, it is a product-based company not a technology company. This allows the R&D team to be technology agnostic, using open standards and embracing new technologies to fit market requirements. We rapidly gain expertise in new technologies and use them to solve specific problems for our customers and partners.
This blog traces some of the key technologies that make up the IoT today and where Omni-ID products can support your business requirements tomorrow. While it’s tempting to think of pervasive connectivity as a modern phenomenon, the IoT runs on a range of tried and trusted technologies that have been developing for almost a century, these include:
The origin of Bluetooth connectivity can be traced back to 1994 when Dutch engineer, Jaap Haartsen, began developing a way of using short-range wireless to connect cellular and mobile devices. His system laid the foundations for Bluetooth Wireless Technology and over the next decade Haartsen helped to drive the standardization of the Bluetooth radio interface through the Bluetooth Special Interest Group.
Named after 10th century Danish king, Harald ‘Bluetooth’ Gormsson, who united the tribes of Denmark and Norway, today Bluetooth offers short range wireless connectivity between millions of everyday devices from wireless speakers to contactless payment systems.
Application of the Bluetooth protocol has exploded in recent years thanks to a powerful combination of low power consumption, easy connectivity, optimized data rate and a good communication range in comparison to WiFi. This allows for battery operated devices such as our Sense BLE range to operate for up to five years in harsh conditions, without a change. This has led to Bluetooth becoming the unchallenged de-facto standard for battery powered consumer devices, in turn spurring an immense investment in silicon and batteries. Bluetooth is now poised to make the transition into the industrial arena, hitherto the preserve of 433Mhz and similar standards, and it is bringing with it an array of relatively low-cost microprocessors and sensors.
In addition to the standard profiles and protocols, such as iBeacon and Eddystone, several very interesting and somewhat more exotic applications of the base protocol have sprung up, such as Quuppa and Wirepas
Quuppa and Wirepas
Compared to better known technologies such as UWB, Quuppa offers the advantage of using relatively lower cost asset tracking tags, with industry-leading location accuracy. However, it does require a higher infrastructure investment. This makes Quuppa an ideal technology choice when you need to know an asset location with a good degree of precision, in a contained area such as a warehouse, production cell, or critical personnel areas.
Described as providing 5G IoT without relying on a cellular network, Wirepas provides an approximate location of assets, however, as the Wirepas Mesh protocol software operates on any device, radio frequency, or radio chipset, this substantially reduces the cost of deployment for industrial applications such as smart buildings.
As mentioned, Omni-ID is a product-based company that embraces new technologies to meet customer use case requirements. Earlier this year, three new devices that incorporate Quuppa’s highly accurate location technology were added to the Sense range of IoT devices. The Sense Shield is a wearable device that is ideal for pinpointing the location of lone workers and can be applied to a range of health & safety and healthcare applications. The Sense BLE asset tracking device can now be Quuppa-enabled to provide additional location accuracy. The technology was piloted at the Oval cricket ground in the UK to test whether sporting venues could be safely re-opened with appropriate social distancing.
Omni-ID is a member of the LoRa Alliance and the Sense range offers long range communication for logistics and asset management applications. The LoRaWAN standard is used in more than 100 countries, with an extensive ecosystem of partners and offers good coverage, particularly in Europe. This provides the benefit of a high level of interoperability between devices, at a lower operating cost than cellular networks.
As mentioned, Omni-ID is well-known for its RFID devices. This particular IoT technology has been evolving for more than eighty years. The first use of RFID was for friend or foe identification in the 1940s. Used in conjunction with wireless radio, a passive transmitter on the aircraft allowed the air force to use radar to direct their own aircraft to maximum effect.
This early use case triggered international research into the use of radio frequencies to remotely identify assets, which gave rise to the myriad of consumer applications that surround us today.
Livestock identification using low frequency RFID began to be commercialised in the 1950s, which led to LF RFID being more widely adopted for tracking assets such as rail freight containers in the 1960s.
The use of high frequency RFID for access control in hospitals, hotels, businesses and cars stems from two ground-breaking inventions that were patented in the early 1970s.
Passive RFID tags
In 1973, American electrical engineer, Charles Walton, filed a patent for his invention of a “portable radio frequency emitting identifier”: a passive RF tag that was activated when held within six inches of a radio transceiver and which could be used to unlock a door without using a key. Walton’s invention was the first to be labelled as an ‘RFID’ device. He was awarded a total of ten RFID patents, including a digital version that allowed data to be changed on key cards.
Active RFID tags
Meanwhile, in 1973, another American inventor Mario W Cardullo, was awarded the patent for an active RFID tag with basic read/write memory and the ability to transmit information using its own power source. Cardullo’s inventions formed the basis of modern RFID toll booth systems and keyless ignition fobs used to combat auto theft.
Following on from the HF adoption, we saw the Walmart ultra-high frequency RFID initiative. Walmart had made major efficiency gains from the intelligent application of barcodes and drove the use of barcodes globally from the late 1980s to early 1990s. To achieve the same gains with UHF RFID and to promote open standards, Walmart drove the global standards organization, GS1, to bring together the electronic product (EPC) code for the UHF protocol. The EPC project was funded by Walmart suppliers. Prior to the open standard, the various HF standards kept prices relatively high and there was little competition in the market.
Nine years after signing their global cooperation agreement, in 1999 EAN and UCC launched the Auto-ID Centre to develop Electronic Product Code (EPC) enabling GS1 standards to be used for RFID.
So, UHF RFID actually involves a whole raft of technologies that were brought together within the GS1 EPC and had been in development for half a century.
Based on passive RFID, near field communications technology developed in 2002 and was approved as an ISO/IEC standard in 2003. NFC uses the same 13.56MHz spectrum as proximity RFID tags, and contactless smartcards and enables two-way communication between devices when they are held within 4 centimetres of each other. It supports encryption and, since it is difficult for messages to be intercepted because the devices need to be so close together to communicate, it has been used for a range of security applications and contactless payment systems, including mobile wallets. This development is bolstered by the fact that hundreds of companies, including banks, handset manufacturers and retailers have joined the NFC Forum and Best Buy, Walmart and Target formed the Merchant Customer Exchange (MCX) in 2012.
Future NFC applications include smart packaging, smart metering, and smart marketing, where customers can use their mobiles to scan products for more information, to benefit from special offers, and to place orders.
The birth of Omni-ID
In 2005, I joined QinetiQ when it had developed a novel metallization process that reduced the cost of making antennas. At that point, the great unresolved challenge was how to get a passive UHF RFID tag to work on metal. Silicon chips were becoming available based on the GS1 EPC standard and there was a realisation in the market that UHF is highly susceptible to the surrounding environment.
We took up the challenge and came up with what was at the time a transformational approach. We supplied devices to UK supermarkets for pilot evaluation and larger quantities for roll out programmes at a large US retailer and a car assembly plant in the UK. We also supplied an automated heavy equipment store at an open cast mine in Australia. These represented our first four major customers. From this Omni-ID was born and built a global business providing passive RFID on-metal tags for industrial asset tracking in the manufacturing, logistics, oil & gas and aerospace sectors.
In 2020, Omni-ID broke new ground again with the launch of its Sense range of BLE and LoRa-enabled devices. The Sense range of RFID devices uses a comprehensive set of sensors that can transmit situational and status data over BLE, GPS and open standard LPWAN network protocols, and are highly energy efficient, with batteries lasting up to five years in the field. The Sense LoRa products communicate over distances of up to 15km in flat open spaces and up to 4Km in urban environments, and when used with an accelerometer, will give positional accuracy of 3 – 5 m when moved. The Sense BLE products communicate with readers up to 200m away and can link to WiFi, LAN or cellular networks, a cloud, or a locally hosted client application server. This enabled our devices to be used within a variety of IoT infrastructures and opened up an enormous range of fresh use cases.
To aid data analysis and support rapid proofs of concept, at the start of 2021 we launched our OmniSphere middleware IoT platform, which simplifies the collection, conditioning and forwarding of data from IoT devices such as our Sense range. OmniSphere delivers data to existing customer applications and corporate systems, enabling GNSSS co-ordinates and assets’ current and previous positions to be viewed on a configurable map. The platform also enables alerts when assets enter or leave geofences or when the temperature of assets falls outside pre-configured thresholds.
Where are we now?
From an industrial perspective, I believe we are starting to see pervasive use of RFID which began with large scale implementations in the apparel retail sector and received an exponential boost as billions of Bluetooth and NFC readers were incorporated into the smartphones in everyone’s pockets.
Like ink on blotting paper, as a technology proves its worth in one business application it then spreads into other sectors as diverse as recreation, oil & gas, construction, waste management, and medical asset tracking within hospitals.
More recently, we’ve seen technologies being combined within BLE NFC devices.
Although it’s designed as a consumer product, I believe it is fair to say that the Apple AirTag is a landmark product for the IoT market as a whole because it’s a UWB BLE NFC device running a combination of different technologies. While the $40+ price is relatively high and, as an Apple device, the AirTag uses proprietary protocols, it’s very interesting to see Apple producing what is effectively an IoT-based asset location tag for the consumer market. This is a key intersection between consumer and industrial IoT that has the potential to drive a host of new developments.
Where are we heading?
Omni-ID’s primary markets are logistics, industrial assets and energy and we’re excited about the growth in the VHF RFID adoption that we’re seeing and the complementary technologies, such as BLE, Quuppa and Wirepas, that are being added to our products as a result of customer and partners’ requests, and which demonstrate how just far consumer technology is reaching into the industrial arena. We’re also seeing requests for incorporation of longer-range technologies, further extending the complementary solutions to meet new use cases within the logistics and industrial energy arenas.
This is a hugely exciting time to be working in our industry. I firmly believe that we’re on the cusp of the next generation of UHF RFID and an IoT revolution.
Where are we seeing growth?
We’re seeing a growing number of new IoT opportunities where companies want to combine NFC with UHF RFID to deliver logistics and asset management efficiencies and also to enhance the customer experience in a dual industrial/consumer application. Some examples include:
In countries that don’t have piped gas there is a demand for tracking gas canisters used for domestic energy. A project is entering its rollout phase in Asia where UHF RFID is used for logistics to track millions of domestic gas canisters and the NFC component is combined with an app to allow fresh supplies to be ordered via customers’ smartphones. This is a perfect example of the market embracing technology and using industrial RFID in combination with NFC to enhance customer experience, engagement and loyalty by making it easier for people to return and reorder domestic gas canisters.
Another project combining RFID and NFC is a maintenance, repairs and operations application that uses the NFC component, embedded within assets, to communicate directly with a field service engineer’s device, allowing the relevant authority to create an audit trail showing when each asset was moved, maintained, or replaced.
A producer of dairy products, which are currently transported in single-use cardboard boxes, is looking at embedding RFID within reusable corrugated plastic boxes to achieve efficiency gains across more than 20 million reusable boxes. This is a similar application to that of Keg Hounds, which selected Omni-ID to develop a waterproof, robust, durable passive RFID tag for metal beer chimbs, which significantly reduces shrinkage and loss for breweries.
As discussed, the IoT involves a spectrum of complementary technologies that have been maturing for decades, with each technology fulfilling a different requirement.
Over the past two decades we have observed a whirlpool effect, where an innovation in one sector accelerates development of a solution in a related industry. This has resulted in technologies that intersect, enhance and advance the whole IoT ecosystem.
As industrial and consumer technologies start to interleave, I genuinely feel like we are on the brink of a technology revolution with a clutch of radically new technologies emerging such as WilIoT, and cellular technologies enabled by the roll out of 5G and 6G.
Ultimately, the IoT technologies that we implement are designed to improve efficiency, tracking and safety: saving our customers time and reducing cost, waste and environmental impact. Whether this involves complete re-engineering of assets or making the collection of millions of containers more efficient we’ll be there to support your business in creating the right IoT solution.
We’re exhibiting at a number of international events over the next twelve months where we’ll be delighted to discuss how we can work together. Visit https://omni-id.com/category/news-events/ or sign up to our newsletter for regular updates.
IDC Worldwide Semiannual Internet of Things Spending Guide, 9th June 2021 https://www.idc.com/getdoc.jsp?containerId=prEUR147929621
RFID, friend or foe application, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio-frequency_identification
Paragon, the history of RFID https://www.paragon-id.com/en/inspiration/history-radio-frequency-identification-technology
European Inventor Award: Bluetooth inventor, Jaap Haartsen https://www.epo.org/news-events/events/european-inventor/finalists/2012/haartsen.html
Systec-Electronic.com WP-PD-123 – Wirepas Mesh Overview https://www.systec-electronic.com/fileadmin/Redakteur/produkte/IoT-Loesungen/SRN-300/Dokumente/Wirepas_Mesh_Overview-1.pdf
SAOS Ltd, A note on UHF tagging and ScotEID https://www.scoteid.com/Public/Documents/UHF_note.pdf
Lemelson MIT Edu https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/charles-walton
Wikipedia, Charles Walton, RFID inventor https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Gateway RFID Store, who is Mario W Cardullo https://gatewayrfidstore.com/who-is-mario-w-cardullo/
Computerworld, A short history of NFC, 2012 https://www.computerworld.com/article/2493888/a-short-history-of-nfc.html
Wikipedia, GS1, the not-for-profit global communication standards organization https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GS1
IoT Now, interview with Semtech, ‘How can LoRaWAN help developers overcome the barrier to IoT?’ July 1st 2021 https://www.iot-now.com/2021/07/01/111137-how-can-lorawan-help-developers-overcome-the-barrier-to-iot/