At the end of 2018, we started thinking about demonstrators for CES 2019, not knowing that this would be the last larger exhibition most of us would attend in person for a while. Earlier that year we were introduced to a printed battery manufacturer headquartered in Berkeley, California. Their signature product is a credit card sized, less than 1mm in height, flexible, disposable battery.
One of our ideas was to create a small, thin and low-cost Bluetooth® Low Energy (LE) label, beacon, findable, logger. A colleague of mine quickly built two working prototypes based on our Bluetooth Low Energy SoC DA14531 which we exhibited at CES 2019 and received very positive feedback. We demonstrated these two labels being connected to a gateway that determined the RF signal strength to estimate the distance and identify the individual labels. This first demonstrator did not contain any additional features such as sensors.
Promising customer feedback motivated us to rethink what else a Bluetooth LE connected label could be used for which inspired us to start sketching out a new generation label. Knowing that we would need more than a handful of samples, we engaged with a third-party manufacturing house to design a small flex-foil PCB and integrated the Bluetooth LE DA14531 SoC, an 8-Mbit Flash, several sensors (humidity and temperature, ambient light, 3-axis accelerometer) and made it easily connectable to the aforementioned printed battery.
This proof of concept (PoC) is available today and can be used in various scenarios such as:
- Data logging and reporting, e.g. for food, pharmaceutical and other sensitive goods using an environmentally friendly, battery-powered, standard RF-radio equipped label/tag
- Inventory control, e.g. scan thousands of items in a mid-sized warehouse or on a pallet using just a smartphone or tablet
- Tamper detection, e.g. record events of light exposure, tamper contacts, acceleration
Renesas’ acquisition of Dialog offers a unique opportunity to complement the Dialog Bluetooth LE, ultra-low power Wi-Fi and Flash memory solutions with Renesas’ sensors, additional radios such as LTE CAT-M1 or additional ULP MCUs, expanding our solutions into the broad industrial and consumer markets. Our new PoC is comprised of a Renesas HS3001 humidity and temperature sensor, a DA14531 Bluetooth LE and an AT25XE081D 8-Mbit ultra-low leakage SPI Flash memory. An additional MC3635 3-axis accelerometer and a low-voltage ambient light sensor complement the system (Figure 1).
In comparison to this solution, existing data logging labels or tags, are either using NFC for communication, since their batteries are too small to power our competitors’ radios or if they contain a ubiquitous active radio such as Bluetooth LE or Wi-Fi, they are using large batteries, are built for repeated use over long periods of time and require their own logistics for reuse and recycling. In stark contrast, our Bluetooth LE equipped solution not only logs temperature and other environmental data but also enables users to read this data in real-time and intervene before goods are damaged or lost. Since this PoC is using Bluetooth LE for wireless communication, all that is required to take advantage of these options is a standard mobile phone or tablet – no special transceivers or special infrastructure required. Furthermore, the printed battery manufactured by Imprint Energy can be disposed of through regular household waste since it does not contain any environmentally harmful components.
Interestingly, going through the process of specifying and designing this new demonstrator, in cooperation with the battery supplier and the third-party manufacturing house, has already provided multiple opportunities to engage with potential customers long before the first samples were physically available. We have already provided multiple software implementations as well as label hardware, supporting a variety of customer requirements ranging from simple beacon functions, data logging, to using smart inventory hub functions in combination with a generic Linux-OS based hub. In addition, Renesas is engaged with multiple customers for diverse applications such as electronic shelf labels with e-ink display and multiple years of battery life from simple button cells, Bluetooth LE based "findables" with primary and rechargeable batteries, and many more solutions in this space.
This PoC is intended as an elevated development platform for some customer-specific projects. However, depending on the customer requirements, other batteries, sensors, memory requirements, etc. can influence the actual product development. Customers who do not have the required engineering resources available may want to take advantage of the work already conducted with one of the third-party design and manufacturing houses we work with.