The concept of an “internet of things” emerged at the end of the 1990s, when Kevin Ashton, a computer scientist working at Procter & Gamble, coined the term to describe a means of tracking products by equipping them with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips. (Work on so-called “smart devices” had been underway for at least 15 years prior to that.) The implications of the idea were far-ranging, involving a multitude of consumer, commercial and industrial uses. But in the eyes of the general public, IoT was perhaps best summed up by the image of a smart refrigerator.
That’s a highly reductive way of looking at a groundbreaking technology, of course, and over the past two decades, the IoT has wormed its way into nearly every stage of manufacturing, commerce and the supply chain. Yet its chief purpose up to now has been to create an “internet of expensive things,” says Steve Statler, chief marketing officer of Wiliot, developer of an IoT platform for supply chains and asset management. He’s referring to IoT’s proven ability to track the status of items such as cars, shipping containers, gas meters and appliances.
Now comes the concept of “ambient IoT,” in which the technology becomes so pervasive that it’s able to monitor much smaller units — “the things that are inside those things,” as Statler puts it, citing food, medicine and clothing as examples of newly trackable items.
The technology is still in early stages, but Statler believes the impact of ambient IoT will be “quite profound,” enabling greater sustainability, traceability and food safety, while reducing shrink and theft. Combined with the power of modern artificial intelligence, in the form of large language models such as ChatGPT, “we have a huge opportunity in terms of productivity and entrepreneurial opportunities,” he says.
Ambient IoT devices rely on a new standard for mobile broadband communications created by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a joint initiative of seven industry organizations in the U.S., Europe and Asia. Additional efforts at standardization are being spearheaded by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which is creating a working group called AMP, for ambient power. Meanwhile, on the hardware side, a battery-free Bluetooth tag the size of a postage stamp “allows you to have products connected in a way that isn’t possible with QR codes and RFID [tags],” Statler says.
As with the early development of RFID, the application of these new tags and supporting devices will increase as they come down in price. A handheld RFID reader costs around $2,000, but with the use of mobile phones and ambient IoT, the total cost is “100 times cheaper,” Statler says.
Along with the physical development of ambient IoT comes advances in security, ensuring the protection of, and accountability for, the wealth of data that’s generated by the devices.
The ambient IoT tag is an active device that is constantly broadcasting the condition of the item being monitored, Statler says. Traditional RFID tags, by contrast, only communicate when there’s a change in status. The new chips are powered by energy from radio waves, which helps to bring down their price to less than 10 cents apiece.
Mishaps that can trigger an alert include product stored in the wrong location, loaded onto the wrong truck or sitting too long in one place. Excessive variations in temperature are also flagged. Statler cites one instance in which a shipment of strawberries ended up under a heater, and was frozen and thawed out six times. “We have a fine-grain view of the cold chain in shipping containers,” he says.
He expects ambient IoT to be of particular value in helping food producers, distributors and retailers meet strict new recordkeeping and traceability requirements issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has set a deadline for compliance of January, 2026.
Early proof of the technology’s effectiveness came during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Wiliot integrated IoT tags into individual vaccine vials for Pfizer. As a result, it was able to monitor in real time conditions such as temperature, fill level and even dilution. In the case of that last measurement, a variation in the vial’s contents triggered a detectable frequency shift. That capability “was a happy accident,” Statler says. “It became a feature, but was initially a bug.”
Shippers and carriers are constantly striving to eliminate the “black holes” of visibility that can occur while product is in transit. Ambient IoT’s “always-on” status can help to minimize such instances. And even when communications are temporarily interrupted — say, on a containership in mid-ocean — “you would take the data, store it at the edge and forward it, so that when the shipping container comes back into the cell network, you can relay that,” Statler says.
In the years ahead, ambient IoT tags are likely to show up in some surprising places. “Expect it in your auto injector, your kid’s insulin, your box of corn flakes,” Statler says, describing a future “where data is owned, encrypted and traceable. That’s how we get to this fully online, trusted world, where service is better.”
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