Reducing Battery Waste with Low-Power IoT | Atmosic's Nick Dutton
- [Ryan] Welcome Nick to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week. - [Nick] Thanks very much for having me on. - [Ryan] Excited to have this conversation. Let's kick this off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself and the company to our audience.
- [Nick] Yeah, so obviously I'm from the UK. The accent might fool a few people, but no, I'm based here in the Campbell office, which is the main office for Atmosic Technologies. Atmosic is a company, we focus on low power with the intent of ensuring products can use energy harvesting.
We then take that position, and we apply it to various wireless protocols so that we can generally as a whole bring the power down. Of course, the other way to do this is you focus on the protocols and then apply power savings afterwards. We just find it's easier to keep our eye on the goal if power is what we're focusing on. - [Ryan] And so I've had a few conversations with people in the past about low power solutions and IoT and the focus on bringing the power down. As you mentioned, what are the benefits of doing that. Like, how is, how are low power solutions playing a role in IoT? Are there certain applications that are benefiting from that? That it's being like the bringing the power down is helping increase adoption around or just talk us through that frame of things.
- [Nick] That's an interesting topic. And it's been going on for years. But the belief according to a lot of market reports is that IoT is gonna have about 27 billion connected devices by about 2025. Now, you might see different reports that have slightly different numbers, but they're all in that context. And what's also happened is during the COVID period, you've noticed that a lot of those IoT devices have moved faster into the home market, and this is because people are surrounded by their environment and they're realizing what they want to be connected to the benefits that those IoT devices come.
Now, the caveat of this IoT adoption is that the majority of IoT devices might have a battery in them. There's about 3 billion batteries every year sent to landfill. That's about a hundred batteries per second.
Now, what's the problem there? The problem there is of course that the housings of those batteries, in time, they break down and then you start getting the leaching of the toxic chemicals into the water, local water tables, into the food supplies and so forth. So generally speaking, the IoT adoption, while it's a good thing for people generally, it can be a bad thing for the environment and down the road, we all get to pay for those problems. - [Ryan] Yeah, so that's was my next question. I was going to ask you about the growth of connected devices and how it's, how that battery waste is affecting things, right? Like it's having a big impact, as you mentioned, and it's something that does need to be thought about as scale of these solutions grows, as more solutions are and products are adopted.
And I think it's critical for companies to start thinking about sustainability when it comes to these things. So how do you recommend companies who are conscious of this to approach adoption with IoT? Like, how do they still go down the route of adopting solutions that are going to benefit their business, benefit their customers, but still keep the sustainability element in mind, the battery waste pieces in mind, like what, what can be done on their end? And then from a company perspective, what can be done to help make this less of a concern? - [Nick] The sustainability option is actually not a complicated path to go down. It's very easy to design with sustainability in mind.
There are a lot of options to do the right thing, if you will. The reality of it is though, there's a lot of history about not going down those paths, and so it can be the path of least resistance is the path of choice. But then the other good news is that a lot of the very big, tier one type customers out there, market leaders out there, they are putting sustainability programs in place that are requiring their companies to move to this more sustainable path. And that's the path where we're making ourselves available to.
Again, jumping back to, you asked what our company does. The design of our part is intended to reduce the number of batteries in a product if we can get a product to energy harvesting. That's actually the golden milestone that we're trying to get to.
But take the TV remote control as an example. We would like to see the TV remote control become like the calculator did when you know, you and I were back in school, all the calculators out there, I've got this little window in the corner, which was the solar cell. It's actually hard to get a calculator now that doesn't have that. The remote controls, that was one of the directions that we were going to. And we are doing very good at that. Bear in mind that a remote control in its life probably lasts 7 to 10 years.
In that time, a battery change by the consumer might happen 6 or 7 times. Six or seven times, that's 12 to 14 batteries based on every remote control having two. If we can get that to a single battery for the lifetime of the product, that's a substantial change on the sustainability path. It doesn't mean we've solved everything, but it is a substantial change.
But what you can also see going back, one or two CESs, the Consumer Electronics Show that's held in Vegas, you can see that a lot of these remote controls now are completely doing away with the batteries. They're putting solar technology or photovoltaic technology onto the remote control. They may be doing RF harvesting. They may be doing some other techniques out there. But fundamentally there is a good path by these tier one guys to actually make a difference. - [Ryan] Yeah, you mentioned if you think about it as an individual consumer on what not only the cost replacing batteries, but the frequency and the time that it requires to do that.
If you amplify that out to a company who has tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of devices out in the field for a use case that they are in control of. The idea of having to change batteries is not only expensive, but also a nightmare logistically to have to deal with. So a lot of companies, when you talk to them about building a solution, one of the biggest concerns they have is when they're looking at scale is what's the battery life? How is this going to affect, or how long is this product or device going to run before I have to change the battery? What's that cost look like? What's the manpower that's behind changing those batteries out manually, if that's how you do it. But if you think about the being able to eliminate the need for battery replacement by bringing down the power requirements of these solutions, which obviously every solution is not necessarily going to be brought down to that point right now, we have a lot of solutions that are more power consumption based because they require it for what it needs to do, but for the ones that you can do that for, how do you think that really impacts IoT adoption by being able to eliminate the need to bring down or I guess replace batteries on a regular basis, if ever? - [Nick] I think we have to now start looking at the applications. When you look at consumer applications, a lot of the problems that you just mentioned are actually passed off onto the consumer. They've got one TV remote control, they changed the battery, it's all on them.
It's not really on the manufacturer. There can be two ways to look at the consumer side. You could look at the sustainability narrative, which is obviously, the way that the manufacturer would like you to go. But you could also look at the convenience narrative. It saves you going to the shops.
It saves you rummaging through the kitchen drawer. It lets you do what you want to do straight away if you don't have to change the batteries. On the other side, you've got the applications which tend to be consumer, sorry, commercial or retail and things like that.
Now, if you're doing electronic shelf labels, I have one here actually, these are the little labels you might see in shops. If you're doing beacons for asset management, I also have one of those, funnily enough, which is these little things, which might be strapped to pallets and so forth. The problem in the commercial space is you've got a hundred thousand of these things. Not just one of them. Now, one could argue, sustainability argument, 100,000 batteries, but the convenience argument there becomes a financial problem. Your IT departments are suddenly responsible for 100,000 batteries.
Can they be sure those batteries will be in a healthy condition at the critical moment? You're now requiring commercial and retail establishments to basically pay someone to change batteries because it would become a full time job based on scale. - [Ryan] It's interesting to see how things have evolved over the years when it comes to energy harvesting, bringing down power consumption and really focused on this challenge of how do we take this burden off the plates of those looking to adopt? Because I think it is a big prohibitor for a lot of companies looking to deploy solutions at scale if they can't find a power source that can achieve what they're looking for without driving up costs or driving up resources in order to fix things on a regular basis. So I'm curious to see how things go. Where do you, from your perspective, see us getting to, is it a situation where almost every application is able to be, get fallen to low power bucket, or are we going to get to a point where maybe only certain applications really are able to get to a point to where batteries are able to be changed less or battery technology going to improve? Like, how do you see this evolving over the coming years? - [Nick] I think the answer is all of the above. So I think again, it comes to the application.
I think the definition of low power really is a function of the application you're trying to solve. The TV remote control, low power for that is you know I want to make this little tiny coin cell battery last for 10 years. All right.
If we were to take that same scenario for a dishwasher, we wouldn't be talking about coin cell batteries anymore. So there is the application aspect to it. But there is of course, to answer your other part of your question, which is the accessibility to the technology. So companies like ours, we're looking to fully integrate the solution of a wireless in, as an example, the ATM33, it's a wireless Bluetooth SoC. Super common.
Lots of people make Bluetooth SoCs, but we're also integrating a lot of the energy harvester capabilities. We've got the charge circuit in there. We've got certain things in there which make sure that even the MCU can stay asleep and the chip will do things. This brings that low power remote control application very close.
We are today making applications which are battery free. We can harvest enough power to do what we need to do, then go back to sleep. In those same type of applications, if they become very chatty, there may only be a certain amount we can harvest, and at that point you want to supplement with batteries and stored power. That extends the life of the battery. It doesn't mean that it's a problem because you still have a battery. That battery just lasts longer.
So you don't use as many batteries over the life of a product. When it comes to the harvester side of things, we have plenty of partners that bring different type of technologies that we can harvest from. So you have the PV, which most people refer to as solar. You have the thermal type of power, thermal's great in an industrial setting. Electric motors are spinning away.
We can harvest the heat from those. You no longer need wire pulls. That's a benefit for the IT company. You no longer need battery changes. Benefit for the IT company that's looking after these things.
Motion. You know a lot of people might refer to their watch and how just moving around keeps it charged. And then of course is RF energy.
The environment's full of it. Harvesting that can be a challenge. Different frequencies have different power. There is a high availability of 2.4 globally. There's not a lot of power in 2.4.
2.4 is common in your Wi-Fi, it's common in your Bluetooth and things like that. But in the retail space, putting in a 900 and 800 megahertz transmitter that's just designed to power up electronic shelf labels, that means the electronic shelf label does not need to have a battery at all. - [Ryan] No, absolutely. That's a great kind of kind of way to break it down of where we're heading, what we're doing.
So when I talk to companies, obviously the sustainability comes up quite a lot. And in the past, if you were to talk to somebody about more of a green solution, usually the first thing they think about is, okay, this is going to cost me more. But it does seem like over recent years, the topic of sustainability and how companies can be more sustainable when it comes to new solutions they're adopting, new deployments, things like that, it is becoming more of a priority. So how have you seen that growth within organizations to move towards more sustainable initiatives, sustainable products, solutions, things like in the IoT space.
- [Nick] The main reason that's been a slow problem is that manufacturers tend to think of it in terms of the products that they're creating. When you're looking at energy harvesting, the thing that they're creating is a bigger environment. So for example, we spoke a moment about RF harvesting. Yes, I can make an electronic shelf label that will harvest energy, but somebody else has to go and make that RF transmitter that will provide me the energy. So if a company is wanting to getting new product out there, they've either got to say out of box experience, it'll just work, or we're part of an alliance and we'll make an effort to move forward together. When it comes to the battery argument, how much does it cost to put a battery in a product? It doesn't cost that much.
Whereas bolting all these extra things on might cost a bit more. There's a, there's an argument there that says, fine, if we put a battery in, if we're in a commercial environment, we're telling the customer to hire another person to just replace batteries all the time. Whereas if we take that out, we're saying you don't need to spend that money on somebody changing batteries all the time. Think of it as the solution.
You know when you go out and buy a car, there's a lot of extra things that bolt into it. There's the cost of oil, the cost of fuel, you know the cost of this, the cost of that, cost of the other. The market has been taught in that space to think of it as a big entity. Can I afford to run this big 4x4 off road vehicle knowing how much it costs? Well, I want to take my car off road.
Yes, I will accommodate that. If I can't accommodate that, I will buy one of the little tiny compact cars. It's really about the solution and what you're trying to achieve. - [Ryan] I wanted to ask you one thing prior to us wrapping up here. It's a little pivot from what we've been talking about, but I think it'd be I'd be interested to hear your perspective on this. Obviously, if you think about the landscape of the IoT space and all the different areas of IoT from hardware to connectivity to full solutions, platforms, you name it, there definitely have been a lot of different size companies that have been able to find success, but there are a lot of companies and people who listen to our podcasts that are smaller looking to get into the space but have questions about how they can compete in IoT with established players who are already in the space.
And I'd love to hear just your advice to wrap up our conversation around what can they do? How should they be thinking about being able to compete with established players because you've, you all have done a great job doing that. What is it about, or what have you found to be a key to successfully doing that in the IoT space? - [Nick] You have to look at IoT as a of things type of aspect. There is no one IoT product. IoT to one person is a light switch on the wall. IoT to another person is a garage door opener. IoT to a third person might even be a phone.
The definition of IoT is broad. The answer may be different in different spaces. Years ago when we all had flip phones, the market differentiator was really about integrating your music, integrating your phone, integrating various experiences. That's how they made a differentiator.
Now, certainly they also did things to lower power consumption in the device because you didn't want that thing to be bigger. But they weren't selling based on the energy consumption in that example. I think each individual application and each vendor to those applications just needs to think about how they differentiate their space. And knowing that they're differentiating their space also helps with the rest of the problem that's behind the application. Which, probably more often than not is actually going to be power.
You're trying to add more features, it tends to use more power. So designing well is going to be a good thing for them to push on. - [Ryan] Yeah, we've seen companies who have come into the space that have a more vertical focus and really understand their space and build a solution with the target audience in mind have done really well to compete with established players who try to be more horizontal as well. So I think, the advice is well heard from your side of things. - [Nick] From our standpoint, you could probably, if you know much about Bluetooth chip vendors, you could probably just keep counting them. There's loads of people who make Bluetooth.
But again, they are coming in saying, we make Bluetooth. What's the differentiation? I don't know. What is the differentiation? I can tell you what we do. We do not consider the wireless protocol up front. We say we want to make a product that will provide wireless communications at the lowest level of power. And then where can we fit that into the market? Today we're very focused on Bluetooth because there's a requirement to get the power down in Bluetooth.
And that's a great thing for us. And that's what we're focused on. - [Ryan] Absolutely. No, fantastic. Nick, for our audience out there is listening to this and wants to learn more about what you all have going on. Follow up on this discussion in any way, what's the best way they can do that? - [Nick] Well, certainly, of course, like everyone, there's the website, atmosic.com.
There are definitely distributors and sales guys out there that you can also go to. They, those guys, they carry our evaluation kits where people can actually go out, get the evaluation kits, and just see what we mean by low power. Low power to us, it just, in transmit and receive alone is about three, four or five times lower than a lot of the competitors depending on the application. That's the best way to get started, I would guess. - [Ryan] Well, Nick, really appreciate your time.
Thanks for doing this, and I'm excited to get this out to our audience. - [Nick] Sure, no problem.