Wiliot Unveils Passive Bluetooth Sensor

The innovative semiconductor firm has also announced that it has raised an additional $30 million in funding from Avery Dennison, Amazon Web Services and Samsung Venture Investment.
Published: January 25, 2019

Wiliot, a fabless semiconductor company launched in 2017, has unveiled the world’s first passive Bluetooth sensor. The device, which is still a prototype, can harvest ambient RF energy from Wi-Fi access points, as well as smartphones connecting to cell towers and other Bluetooth signals. It is also able to detect temperature, pressure and movement, then relay that information to any Bluetooth transceiver. The firm has raised an additional $30 million in funding from Amazon Web Services, Avery Dennison and Samsung Venture Investment Corp.

“This is the third iteration of our chip, and this one is actually transmitting,” says Steve Statler, Wiliot’s senior VP for marketing and business development. “It’s sort of our first call across the Atlantic. This year will be about going from proving it’s possible to create a passive Bluetooth sensor to scaling it. Having the investment from Avery Dennison, Amazon Web Services and Samsung will help us do that.”

The device broadcasts part of a message once sufficient energy has been stored.

The current chip offers a communication distance of approximately 2 meters (6.6 feet)—or longer if there is a lot of ambient energy available to harvest. However, Statler believes the next version of the chip will be able to achieve a distance of 10 to 20 meters (33 to 66 feet).

The device does not use backscatter to reflect back a signal to a reader, as a passive UHF RFID transponder does. Instead, it harvests energy from any RF device and stores it briefly. When enough energy has been stored, it broadcasts part of a message, then waits to store up more energy. It then sends the next part of the message, and so on. This ability to break up the message and transmit it in phases, as the chip receives energy from its surroundings, is Wiliot’s breakthrough innovation, the company reports.

“With a dozen conventional Bluetooth beacons costing $20 each, you can blanket a store and have them read the IDs in our tags on all of the products in the store,” Statler says. “That way, you have real-time data instead of having someone go out with a handheld reader every couple of days to take inventory.”

Since a beacon could determine a retail item’s rough location via a passive Wiliot sensor, a retailer could send a promotion to a customer within the vicinity of a particular item, via a smartphone app. The passive Wiliot sensor on that item could sense if the item were picked up, and the retailer could better measure a promotion’s success by linking the promotion to the customer’s actions.

Statler believes there will be additional benefits for brand owners that sew the passive sensor into items. “If the Bluetooth device in your phone continues to communicate with the item, we know you took it home,” he explains. “We can know if you are wearing it, and how many times you wear it, so we can fuel a recommendation engine with information about what a customer likes, rather than just what they bought.”

The chip provides temperature, weight and movement sensing on die.

The device also has potential supply chain and manufacturing applications. A beacon in a truck could indicate when an item was removed, and pressure sensors could provide real-time data regarding activities within remote factories. “Like passive RFID,” Statler states, “passive Bluetooth sensors have a tremendous number of different applications.”

Wiliot expects to have a chip ready for commercialization and mass production early next year. Since the chip features a full ARM processor; encryption; and temperature, weight and movement sensing on die, it will be more expensive than a passive UHF or HF RFID transponder, Statler says. However, he adds, the goal is to get the price down to roughly 10 cents within three years.

The $30 million that the company raised brings the total amount of money raised in just two years to $50 million. In November 2017, Wiliot announced that it had closed an an investment round with Qualcomm Ventures, the investment arm of Qualcomm Inc., and M Ventures, the venture capital arm of pharmaceutical company Merck. Early in 2017, it raised $14 million from Grove Ventures, Norwest Venture Partners and 83North Venture Capital.

Wiliot offered a presentation at last year’s RFID Journal LIVE! conference and exhibition. The speaker explained how Bluetooth and RFID technologies are merging, the new functionality that is available, and the business opportunities and threats of which companies should be aware (see Bluetooth and RFID Merge to Link CPG to IoT).