The Future of IoT Is Disposable

- October 11, 2017

Microsensors are becoming cheaper to create and easier to obtain, which is great news for just about every industry: manufacturing, oil and gas, biopharmaceuticals, and even environmental science. We’re nearing a future where every object, even those not wired, will have something to tell us.

Microsensors are usually mere millimeters in size and can sense a huge array of different mechanical or physical signals like temperature, pressure, chemical changes, magnetic fields, radiation and others. Interestingly, despite their tiny size, microsensors can also often outperform their full-sized counterparts.

Some industries, like biotech for instance, have long shown a strong interest and heavy development activity in disposable or “single-use” tech. Starting in the early 2000s, innovative biotech companies have used microsensors for things from prescription bottle safety to disposable bioprocessing. The industry has demonstrated its full understanding of the cost savings and innovation that disposable technologies bring. Some have even called the technology integral to the industry’s advancement.

The biopharma industry segment has been taking off, experiencing a near double-digit growth rate since 2014. Some analysts believe it will be worth $4.3 billion by 2021.

Companies in the defense industry has been using microsensors for more than a decade for uses like detecting poisonous gases. And the US Marine Corps is testing disposable drones for delivering supplies to remote regions.

Other industries are beginning to catch on and show a growing interest in disposable or single-use sensors based on their lowering cost.

An example is the tracking sensors French IoT connectivity service company Sigfox plans to put into scenarios like tracking when a shipped package is opened. In a demonstration at a partner meeting in Prague, Sigfox scientific director Christophe Fourtet showed the sensor’s ultra-slim design by ripping open a cardboard envelope. His phone then alerted that the package had arrived and been opened. Sigfox reports that the sensors would cost around $15 in 2015, but that the price will be dropping to “a few tens of cents” before too long.

And soon, coming to a grocery store near you, food products with microsensors that monitor for freshness. Normally microsensors contain undigestable precious metals that would be harmful if consumed. But researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich have created biodegradable sensors thinner than a single human hair, made of “magnesium, silicon dioxide and nitride in a compostable polymer.” For power, the sensors use an external “micro battery” with biodegradable zinc cables.

Giovanni Salvatore, a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich says biosensors could be part of everyday life within five to 10 years. “Once the price of biosensors falls enough, they could be used virtually anywhere,” he said.

The first step in bringing these sensors to a level of everyday ubiquity is finding a biocompatible power source, which Salvatore’s team is researching.