Are your fragile packages safe? Ask Intel's tiny IoT chip

Intel's IA-32 "mote" prototype could go into smart labels that sense rough handling

Tags on a fragile packages may someday be able to say whether the goods are riding safely in the back of a truck or bouncing around in a hazardous way.

If Intel follows through on an IoT research project it demonstrated at Intel Developer Forum this week, those tags could report on shipping conditions in real time without needing a battery to stay powered. After the package is delivered, the label might even be disposable.

20160818 intel mote iot package tag at idf16 Stephen Lawson

Intel demonstrated a prototype "smart tag" for packages at Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco on Aug. 16, 2016. The tag could detect motion and show it on a chart in real time.

It’s the kind of IoT that enterprises might not even be aware of as a device or system but could still benefit from every day. Meanwhile, for a shipping company, it might save on labor and specialized technology rollouts.

In Intel's demonstration, a real-time graph generated by sensor readings automatically showed a box getting shaken up. Power came from a standard, unlicensed wireless network.

The key to this oversharing tag is what Intel calls a mote. It’s a chip so small it could get lost in a jar of coarse-ground pepper. The IA-32 mote shown at IDF, built on Intel's Quark architecture, would be the brains of a tag that could incorporate motion, temperature and other sensors.

The tiny size of the processor is a big part of what makes the whole system viable, as it keeps both energy draw and per-chip costs low.

The mote doesn’t talk directly to the cloud. Instead, it uses a short-range, low-power network – in this case, Bluetooth Low Energy – to a local gateway device that forwards the data over a longer-range network like cellular. The local gateway might also process or store the data first.

The mote is so small and efficient, using only about 1 milliwatt, that it can run on energy harvested from radio waves wafting through the air around it. For example, a Wi-Fi network on a truck might bathe a trailer full of packages with enough RF (radio frequency) energy to power motes on every one of them, Intel researcher Turbo Majumder said.

There are other possible power sources for a tiny chip like this. In the mote booth at IDF, Intel displayed a fingertip-sized solar panel that could be paired with it. Harvesting power from motion could also work. But both of those sources would require batteries to keep the mote running and communicating while stationary or in the dark. RF energy harvesting works whenever the radio waves it uses are strong enough.

Cell towers dotting the landscape mean RF is almost everywhere, but those kinds of radio waves from a distance usually aren’t powerful enough to power a device like the mote, Majumder said. It’s likely to need a local source, like a truck’s on-board LTE radio or office Wi-Fi.

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