The Year of Low Power

By Kevin Ashton

In 2012, RFID will benefit from a trend toward electronics that are more energy-efficient.

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The history of high tech is a series of curves. The x-axis has always been time, while the y-axis has variously been size, speed, RAM and resolution. Computers got smaller, chips got faster, memory increased almost exponentially and pixels per square inch did the same—with every graph of progress tracing a similar hockey-stick shape pattern. Each frontier in computing has been crossed by delivering ever-increasing amounts of something until we have more of it than we could possibly need.

This year, the curve is all about power consumption. Innovators everywhere are racing to build chips, systems and devices that use less energy. The University of Michigan spinout Ambiq Micro, for example, is developing tiny, low-power microcontrollers so energy- efficient they can run on a solar cell smaller than a fingernail. Tech startup SuVolta says it has developed a process that will halve the power used by conventional microprocessors, and Intel claims it can accomplish the same feat using three-dimensional transistors based on a new technology it calls “tri-gate.”

Chip maker NXP Semiconductors—a driving force behind Near-Field Communication (NFC) technology—recently launched JenNet, a low-cost, low-power way to network lightbulbs, to monitor and manage lighting. Other companies are developing devices that use the Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) standard, which claims ranges of up to 50 meters and roughly 6 percent of the power needed by regular Bluetooth. While NFC has found a foothold among manufacturers of smartphones based on Google‘s Android technology, rumors are rife that Android rival Apple is leaning toward BLE. (Apple is certainly thinking a lot about power these days; extending battery life appears to be one of its research and development focus areas. And the company recently filed a patent for powering mobile devices using hydrogen fuel cells, something that, in theory, could enable an iPhone to work for weeks without recharging.)

What does this mean for radio frequency identification—the ultimate in low-power electronics? Everything. First, the killer app for a lot of these companies is not longer-living cell phones, but the Internet of Things—a world in which sensor networks, including ones that use RFID, are absolutely everywhere. Lower-power electronics make the deployment of this type of network much more likely. One obvious implication: Active RFID systems that rely on batteries could draw less power and cost less to run. Second, chip-power consumption is a crucial parameter for passive RFID tags, which can only turn on and transmit their IDs if they get enough power from energy emitted by an RFID reader. If we use some of these innovations to make chips for tags, RFID systems will be able to operate at greater ranges and be better able to handle obstacles like water and metal.

RFID has long been ahead of the curve—in 2012, it will also get the chance to ride one.

Kevin Ashton was cofounder and executive director of the Auto-ID Center.