Interview: Steve Statler, CMO and ESG lead at Wiliot talks about IoT

Can you give us an overview of IoT, why it is growing in importance, and the impact it is making/ will make in the future?

The Internet of Things brings together the power of the cloud and AI and applies it to the physical world of assets and products – the everyday things consumers interact with. Location, sensing and control are the basics of what IoT brings to manufacturing, enterprise, retail, healthcare, agriculture, homes and many other segments. The physical world is full of inefficiencies, waste, safety, counterfeit, theft and sustainability issues and by opening up the power of the internet and applying it to the things that surround us we can help solve some of our biggest problems. This opens up huge business opportunities for providers and users of IoT.

The term IoT was originally coined by an executive at Procter & Gamble back in 1999 in reference to the RFID tags, stickers that can be energized by readers to track inventory and products in the supply chain. This market has grown to a few tens of billions of things tagged a year, but it is a fraction of what it should be (trillions). While these tags cost a few pennies each it’s held back by an architecture born in the previous century and readers that cost thousands of pounds.

IoT also offers much more sophisticated radios and sensors using other standards like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Lora, thread and cellular.  While the infrastructure for these is often free, the devices tend to be more expensive.

IoT is gaining importance because the technology is improving at a rapid rate, standards are maturing, the market is seeing the ROI and we have some big problems that can be solved best by applying the technology. In both the US and EU there are more regulatory drivers, especially for food and drug safety, and the tracking and tracing of provenance.

These immovable regulatory deadlines combined with a labour shortage is driving the need for automation. Supply chains and asset tracking in particular have been exposed as vulnerable by COVID – more and more businesses are demanding real-time visibility in order to compete and be efficient.

What are the benefits and challenges of implementing IoT in industries such as healthcare, retail, and agriculture?

There’s a book or two to be written on this. Healthcare has been one of the early adopters of IoT because of the cost pressures and consequences for getting things wrong. IoT is used extensively to track assets from beds, infusion pumps, patients and staff.

One of our projects during Covid was to integrate our IoT Pixels, (the name for Wiliot’s battery-free Bluetooth tags) into the tiny vials of Covid vaccine that are so temperature sensitive. Because they are battery-free the tags could be cryogenically frozen and still operate as the tags thawed out, allowing us to monitor the temp, fill level and dilution of their contents.  Vaccines kept at the wrong temperature will not work, and if administered can create serious issues. Keeping track of where such valuable items are is an illustration of how supply chain visibility is key. This was a huge breakthrough which helped build our confidence in the future of our product.

Retail is another sweet spot for IoT. Apple pioneered the use of Bluetooth beacons a decade ago to track customers’ location more precisely in their stores. The iBeacon format they developed could flip their shopping app into store mode and promote self checkout when shoppers were near lower margin products. This project was what got me first involved in the world of Bluetooth beacons.

Now we have taken the beacons used in the Apple stores which were powered by 4 AA batteries and cost tens of dollars and reduced them to the size of a postage stamp at a cost of less than 10 cents.

With this kind of size and cost we have a visibility platform that can be used to help some of the largest grocery chains to survive and thrive in the new world of omnichannel, where competitive pressures from Amazon have meant that much greater accuracy is required to allow customers to order online, pickup in store or have a home delivery without what is called nil-picks, orders that in theory can be satisfied but where the inventory can’t be found.

How does data security and privacy play a role in IoT? What measures can be taken to ensure the security of IoT devices and the data they collect?

Some of the older technology like RFID has fairly weak security, but since very few people have two thousand dollar RFID readers there isn’t a lot of pressure to address the gaps. But, in the case of Bluetooth tags on items it becomes critical. We implemented end to end encryption so that products in people’s wardrobes, drinks cabinets and medicine cabinets can’t be seen by anyone other than their owner.

Larger IoT devices have their own issues, and there are a slew of issues that are being worked on such as making sure that default logins admin/admin are not left open to hackers that want to take control of cameras and locks in people’s homes.

GDPR applies to IoT devices as well as web sites, so in theory there is a legislative framework that can be used to safeguard consumer’s right to privacy where data sharing requires an opt-in it can’t just be assumed.

As more and more products go online, clothing, medicine etc, then having simple ways that people can control what is shared will be key.

What are the current and future trends in IoT that you are excited about?

Ambient IoT is the key one. Going beyond the internet of expensive things to connect every single thing. As we connect food packaging to track its temperature and location in real time we can reduce the huge levels of waste that occur even before groceries can come home. We can also implement food traceability so that recalls can be executed swiftly to save lives and the waste associated with wholesale purges of products impacted during a contamination event.  Most of all when customers get the chance to see the provenance of their food, to know where it came from with information about how it was handled, we have a tool for fighting climate change which is one of the most potent weapons there is. Ambient IoT can tell shoppers the carbon footprint of one apple versus another. It can underpin the growth of regenerative farming where some products can be carbon negative.

Can you explain the evolution of IoT into ambient IoT?

Wiliot was arguably one of the first developers of truly ambient IoT tags – IoT devices that cost pennies and can be embedded into things not just attached to them. Devices that can be on everything and have the potential to talk to anything with a Bluetooth radio: phones, smart speakers, TVs, Wi-Fi aps, fridges, washing machines, door bells, vehicles. I think we can take credit for proving what is possible going beyond the Internet of Expensive things. Now other radio standards are working on supporting ambient. We will see it as a new feature in 5G Advanced and in 8022.11 WiFi devices. This is good. More choice and competition will be good for everyone. IoT will grow much faster when you have telcos and the giants of Wi-Fi business inventing.

How does Wiliot technology work and how do Wiliot IoT Pixels leverage ambient IoT?

The radio and cloud used to connect our postage stamp sized compute devices have been redesigned with the ability to harvest the energy from very weak signals, accumulate it over time in order to broadcast a stronger signal (other battery-free IoT devices require a strong signal and reflect back a weaker one). We have mastered the ability to retain the power for longer and to use the small amount of power more efficiently using a technique called wave computing where tasks are broken up into small pieces that are executed as each new wave of energy comes along. Tasks that might normally be done on the chip are farmed out to the cloud so we can reduce cost and add features even to tags that have already been deployed.

In the future your washing machine will read tags on clothing so that the wash cycle is automatically adjusted and you never lose another sock again.

Beyond the opportunities to tackle climate, healthcare and food safety, every time I lose something, be it gloves, or an important document I can’t wait for the broad deployment of ambient IoT so I never lose another bag or clothing item in a taxi ever again.

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