I recently talked to a company doing some very interesting things in the mobility space and I thought I’d take a stab at writing about them. Most of my mobility posts are about access points or controller software or me just complaining in general about the state of Wi-Fi 6. But this idea had me a little intrigued. And confused.
Bluetooth Moon Rising
Atmosic is a company that is focusing on low-power chips, especially for IoT applications. Most of their team came from Atheros, which you may recall powers a ton of the reference architectures used in wireless APs in many, many AP manufacturers that don’t make their own chips. Their team has the chops to make good wireless stuff one would think.
Atmosic wants to make IoT devices that use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). So far, this is sounding pretty good to me. I’ve seen a lot of crazy awesome ideas for BLE, like location tracking indoors or on-demand digital signage. Sure, there are some tracking issues that go along with that but it’s mostly okay. BLE is what the industry has decided to standardize on for a ton of IoT functionality.
How does Atmosic want to change things in the BLE space? Well, those Atheros chipset guys started out by building a chip that uses 5-10 times less power than before. That’s a staggering number when you think about it. BLE beacons already don’t use a ton of power. They’re designed to be used in concert with APs or with standalone, battery-powered devices. The BLE beacons I’ve seen from Aruba are about the size of the AirPods case. And that battery can last for a couple of years.
If Atmosic really did build a chip that can power those beacons with event 5x less power usage, you’re looking at a huge increase in the lifespan of a beacon! Imagine being able to deploy these things everywhere and have them run for a decade? You could literally cover a stadium or a hotel with them for next to nothing. Even if you included the chip in a new AP, which Atmosic is partnering to do, you could effectively run the BLE side of things for free from a power budget perspective.
This is something that is pretty big news. So why did I suddenly see things start sliding off the rails?
The next part of the Atmosic pitch came when they told me about the the other part of their trinity of power savings. On their technology page, they tout the above mentioned chipset along with the special on-demand wake feature that allows the chips to be put into a deep sleep mode that will only awaken when it receives a special packet designed to rouse the chip like a custom alarm clock.
That third thing, though. Power harvesting. Now we’re starting to get into the real weeds of Wi-Fi stuff. Essentially, Atmosic is saying they can power their low-power BLE beacon indefinitely by harvesting power from RF in the air. Yeah, that’s right. They’re literally pulling nanoamps of power from remote power sources. Evidently, their power system is more reliable because they use known sources like 900MHz for coverage as opposed to just trying to pull the power from whatever happens to be around.
At this point, you’re probably saying one of two things:
- This is crap and it will never work.
- This is the most amazing thing ever!
Right now I tend to fall on the side of the first one. Why? Because if they really did invent a way to pull power from thin air, some really should cut them a check because they need to be building bigger, badder everythings! Imagine being able to power whatever you wanted without clunky batteries or power cords. It would be a revolution!
Sadly, the reality is that the Atmosic trinity pretty much requires all three parts to be so revolutionary. I talked to a couple of my friends in the wireless industry about this and Jonathan Davis (@SubNetwork) was about as skeptical as I was. Since he’s a real math wizard, he figured out that the amount of power being pulled in by the Atmosic chips through the air has to be pretty tiny. Like below nanoamps. And that’s not enough to run an active BLE beacon.
Building a Lower Powered Mousetrap
That’s where the whole system comes into play. It takes a very low power chip with a custom wake sensor (read: Passive Beacon) in order to be able to run on the kinds of power that you can draw from RF waves. And this is where the utility of the whole thing starts breaking down for me. Sure, you could do something crazy like put this on a piece of paper and “hide” it in the service tag of a piece of equipment like a laptop. Then you have a BLE that can track that device even if it’s powered down. But you still need a way to excite the BLE chip and make it wake up. And, at this point, if you’re doing passive Bluetooth is the solution really any better than a passive RFID tag that has the same lifespan? And is a lot cheaper?
The other issue that I have with this solution is the proposed longevity. Forever is the tag on the Atmosic site. For. Ev. Er. Sounds like a great idea in theory, right? Deploy a device in your network that can run forever on free energy and you never have to replace the batteries. Okay, that’s great. How old is your iPhone? Your laptop? Better yet, how old is the oldest piece of enterprise tech that you have on your person right now? I’d wager it can’t be more than 6 years old at this point.
Enterprises get chided for having old technology all the time. Maybe that laptop is 6 years old and still running. Perhaps those servers should have been decommissioned a refresh cycle ago. Compared to the mayfly lifespan of an iPhone, your average piece of enterprise tech is pretty long in the tooth. But not all Enterprise tech is that outdated. Take a look at wireless access points, for example. If you are running the oldest 802.11ac access point made it’s still just barely five years old, the standard having been ratified in December 2013. Most enterprises have already refreshed their 11ac Wave 1 APs. If they haven’t, they’re just holding off long enough for 802.11ax to maybe get certified this year so they can push out hot new hardware.
So, with 5-6 years as the standard for “old” technology in the enterprise, what on earth are we going to do with beacons that are a decade old? With the low-power chipset you’re already looking at a 5-7 lifespan on current battery technology if it really does deliver 5x power savings. Even current BLE beacons are designed with a short lifespan for a reason. Technology changes very fast. If you try and keep that device stuck the wall or a laptop for too long, it’s going to be out of sync with the rest of the tech around it.
Imagine trying to hook up a Bluetooth 2.x device to a current iPhone. It will work because the standards are there but it’s going to be painful because newer devices offer so much more functionality. Trying to keep devices around forever for the sake of doing it isn’t practical. And if you’re going to try and counter the argument by saying IoT devices can be around for quite a while you’re not going to win there either. Most IoT devices that are embedded for long term use wouldn’t use wireless or Bluetooth in the first place. They would be hardwired to cut down on potential points of failure. Sure, you might include something like this in the system, but it’s going to be powered enough already to not need to harvest power through the air.
I think the Atmosic people have the right idea for a baseline but their stretch goal is a bit lofty and sci-fi for my tastes. Sure, the idea of being able to harvest unlimited power from RF to run devices without batteries for years is great in theory. But technology demands for both enterprise tech and consumer/enterprise IoT devices is going to drive people to use the lowest common denominator of simplicity. I think that Atmosic has a lot of upside with these new super efficient chips. But I doubt we’re going to see anyone sucking power out of thin air any time soon.