Smart Bottle Employs RFID to Track Flavor Pod Use

By Claire Swedberg

With a transceiver, an ultrasonic sensor, Bluetooth connectivity and tagged pods, the LifeFuels bottle lets users view on an app what they've consumed and thus manage fluid intake and reordering; the company tracks inventory in-house via the pods.

image_pdfimage_print

Virginia beverage company LifeFuels has designed an RFID-enabled product known as the Smart Nutrition Bottle that tracks flavor pods as consumers use them to make drinks. The bottle enables users to create their own vitamin-enriched beverages from dispensing pods, track what has been consumed, and then capture and view that data on an iOS- or Android-based app.

The company’s engineers designed the bottle in-house to help consumers create the drink flavor they want and monitor how much they consume, with each beverage leveraging three bays in which pods are inserted. Each pod is filled with a beverage concentrate, says Mark Lyons, LifeFuels’ VP of engineering, that can flavor the bottled water on its own or be mixed with another flavor. Since the bottle was developed and released one year ago, the company is now looking into utilizing the RFID technology to track emptied flavor pods for recycling management and customer incentive programs.

To uniquely identify flavors, each pod’s NFC RFID tag is encoded with a unique ID number, as well as the product’s name and stock-keeping unit, and an updated volume indication of how many servings the pod has remaining. A transceiver built into the bottle reads and writes data from and to the tag, while an ultrasonic sensor measures the amount of water inside the 500-milliliter (17-ounce) bottle. A Bluetooth radio transmits the collected data to the user’s app, where he or she can view how much has been consumed and whether a particular mix is running low, as well as place a new order.

The company, founded in 2014, was launched through angel investors. Its $149 bottle comes with a rechargeable battery and a charging station, and users can make monthly flavor pod purchases. To enable the bottle’s intelligence, LifeFuels performed its own engineering. It sought a system that could detect what flavor pod was installed inside it and when a user consumed that beverage, but by employing RFID, the company also wanted to track the pods in-house after production for inventory-management purposes, as well as for a recycling program now being developed.

Consumers using the bottle purchase flavor pods and then insert them into the container’s base. Pods typically serve 30 shots or make up to 30 beverages, such as Antioxidants Blackberry Acai, Electrolytes Lemon Lime and Multivitamins Peach. A user can mix and match the pods, combining several flavors in water to create their own drinks.

After inserting the pods, consumers can view which flavors they are using on their app, as long as the phone has a Bluetooth connection to the bottle. Each time a user wishes to create a drink, he or she would press a button on the side of the bottle, then select the desired flavor. Based on that selection, the bottle injects the appropriate flavors. The ultrasonic sensor detects when the drink has been consumed. Then, each time the pod is dispensed, the transceiver reads its tag ID and writes new information to the tag, indicating the reduced number of servings.

The bottle synchs with the user’s phone using the LifeFuels app, Lyons says. Its built-in Bluetooth transmitter sends the updated data to the user’s phone. The app displays which pods are inside the bottle, how many servings are left and each pod’s nutritional information. Once the consumer is finished with a pod, she or he can send it back to LifeFuels’ headquarters via its Send-Back Recycling Program.

For LifeFuels, the intelligence required in-house engineering, since the company found that there wasn’t any existing technology that would serve its purposes. “We embraced RFID almost immediately,” Lyons says. “We’re after quantification and having the ability to keep track of nutrition being put in the body. We went with a data-rich format with an NFC tag” to update each pod’s status.

The tag comes with 144 bytes of user memory for recording product information and the volume of remaining servings. LifeFuels opted to deploy NFC RFID for its short, reliable read range, Lyons explains, then designed its own transceiver to read the tags in the bottle using hardware provided by NXP Semiconductors. Each pod comes with a 13.56 MHz NXP NTAG compliant with the ISO 14443 standard.

Developing a transceiver in a bottle posed a technical challenge, Lyons recalls. “The usual strategy is a big, powerful antenna to read as many tags as possible,” he states, “but we wanted to be able to localize the pod.” The company needed the bottle to not only identify whether pods were installed, but also in which specific bay. Therefore, it designed the system with three antennas, each encircling a single bay. In that way, the system is designed to read only the tag in that bay if the pod is properly aligned and attached to the bottle. “It has to be in just the right spot to be read,” Lyons explains.

Tracking each pod, however, begins long before a consumer attaches it to a bottle. LifeFuels attaches an RFID tag to each pod at the time of production, and the tags can be read using fixed readers as pods are packed for shipping from the company’s Maryland filling facility to its headquarters in Reston, Va. The tags are read again at the headquarters, as well as when they are stored onsite and when they are shipped to a customer. The data is stored in the company’s software for inventory-management purposes.

The pod comes with a mail-in program for recycling; as LifeFuels receives empty pods, it reads the tag IDs once again. In the future, Lyons says, the system will credit a consumer’s account each time a pod is received for recycling. This is intended to be an incentive program, he adds, offering discounts or free products for those who recycle their pods.

“We’ve always had an eye on sustainability, and the pods are made from recyclable materials,” Lyons says. However, he notes, while the pods can technically be recycled by most communities, many facilities don’t bother to sort such smaller items. The company instead has been working with a partner that takes the empty pods and uses them to make secondary materials. For that reason, LifeFuels hopes to incentivize users of the mail-in recycling system.

So far, Lyons says, response from consumers has been favorable. “We’ve been very proud from the engineering perspective,” he states. “It was a very challenging product.” The smart bottle is sold directly to customers via the company’s website, and users can receive recurring shipments of a fixed number of pods per month.