DARPA’s N-ZERO Program: Asleep-yet-aware sensors

Alan Earls headshot 130pxIIoT is mostly envisioned in terms of an end-to-end information and control system that informs production from start to finish to then illuminate the supply chain – all the way to the customer.

But there is also potential to touch and invigorate the outer limits of these domains, where processes are far less continuous or integration is lower. For instance, industrial production that is discontinuous or seasonal. Or, of course, agriculture.  In these instances, the “wiring” and power requirements of typical IIoT technologies obviates against deployment. What’s the point of putting a sensor on something that isn’t going to produce actionable data for months at a time? Nor can most standard battery powered devices be expected to be “wakeable.”

It turns out that the Pentagon, through the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), is thinking a lot about this topic, probably not because they are excited by the IIoT, but more likely because a lot of military tasks, especially in the intelligence realm, would be much easier or much better if inexpensive and ubiquitous sensors could be applied widely and awakened only periodically – or when they actually have something worth reporting...

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N-ZERO Envisions “Asleep-yet-Aware” Electronics that Could Revolutionize Remote Wireless Sensors. Courtesy of DARPA

DARPA’s Near Zero Power RF and Sensor Operations (N-ZERO) program is trying to get past the power and cycling requirements of typical electronics. The particular focus of the program is on delivering “asleep yet aware” capabilities, where a device would use little or perhaps no power most of the time; potentially allowing very long-term unattended and untethered operations.  The effort focuses both on reducing the power requirements of electronic circuits in general and on developing or enhancing sensor technologies to make them part of the zero-power solution.

DARPA may be a leading exponent of the technology but they are not the only ones thinking about it. For instance, Cymbet Corporation, the Elk River, MN-based maker of solid-state energy storage solutions for microelectronic systems has posted a PowerPoint document that outlines the potential for zero power wireless sensors.

The company’s vision is that energy can be harvested from almost any environment, for example RF and magnetic fields, vibration, or light.  By harnessing that energy over a relatively long period of time, sensors that require little power can be enabled without the need for traditional charging strategies.  This in turn, according to Cymbet, should make possible improved RFID, data logging and access control and many other heretofore challenging applications.

So, whether the impetus comes from DARPA or from entrepreneurs, a more diaphanous and ubiquitous IIoT may be the result, with inexpensive and perhaps disposable devices filling out the information and control picture, across the enterprise and beyond.