NXP and Cherry team up to make an energy-harvesting wireless light switch

Last week, at CES 2013 NXP Semiconductors and Cherry — yes, the same Cherry that makes switches for mechanical keyboards — showed off a light switch. It might not seem like something that could stand up against huge OLED televisions or Android-based mobile gaming platforms, but after surveying the best of CES, you might change your mind about just how impressive this switch is. After all, this switch is wireless, battery-less, energy-harvesting, and parting of the “Internet of Things,” making it one of the most high-tech — and on trend — gadgets at the show.

The light switch, which looks like any other and includes a dimmer, is simply a combination of Cherry’s energy-harvesting switch and a radio. That radio communicates with a receiver that is placed inside the base of an LED light bulb (in most cases a standard E27 base). This means that the switch isn’t designed to work with any old LED bulb, unless the receiver, NXP’s ultra-low-power JN5168 microcontroller, is moved to a fixture or some other component behind the bulb. The JN5168 is designed to support JenNet-IP, ZigBee, and RF4CE networking stacks so it can work with multiple home automation scenarios, not just lighting.

The wireless isn’t the interesting component here, it’s Cherry’s energy-harvesting switch. The device, which Cherry seems to have actually named the “Energy Harvesting RF Switch,” manages to grab from 0.2 to 0.5mW from the switch activation. The force required to push the switch is 8 newtons or about 1.8 pounds-force (or, more technically, 8kg·m/s²) — basically you don’t need to pound this switch or rock it back-and-forth for a minute to generate a sufficient amount of power.

The power of the Internet of Things

This concept, whereby billions of everyday objects might ‘talk’ to each other, raises a host of possibilities for brands and marketers.

Tech: The power of the 'Internet of Things'

Consider smart meters. EDF Energy is trialling a meter that monitors your electricity use minute by minute and sets a price based on demand. If you use off-peak power, you save money.

In the future, such meters might negotiate with your tumble dryer, telling it to slow down when there’s a surge in demand elsewhere. You would pay less, and there would be less of a need for so many expensive power stations to be built.

Or consider car insurance: Aviva is running a small-scale pilot scheme where it places a black box in a consumers’ car and monitors their mileage and driving patterns. Drive carefully on low-risk roads, and your premium will go down.

These are early examples of applications of what’s being called the Internet of Things. When communication chips were expensive and network bandwidth was limited, only the most powerful computers could access the net. Now billions of mobile phones are online. Basically, the Internet of Things gives rise to the question: ‘What can happen when hundreds of billions of everyday objects can access the net and “talk” to each other?’

Real examples

That day isn’t quite here. Much of the activity is still in research labs or pilots. Nonetheless, real examples are starting to go live and some companies are turning their whole business model on its head. Rolls-Royce, for example, no longer sells jet engines as such, but ‘hours of power’ instead, relying on the components within those engines to communicate back to it about how they’re being used, how parts are wearing, and so on. It then schedules the appropriate servicing.The question for you, then, is how this might change your mix of products and services? How might it change the way you promote and sell those products?

In a world where people’s T-shirts can ‘talk’ to their washing machines, will we need different types of soap powder, each tightly tailored to just how that T-shirt is being worn each day?


Create fresh market niches

When an object can tell us exactly how it’s being used, we can tailor supporting products and services. ‘Talking T-shirts’ might not be a reality yet, but such innovations will create opportunities ranging from fresh accessories to dry-cleaning services to who knows what.

Target promotions more effectively

Likewise, when you know exactly what people are doing with an object and where they are, you can target messages to suit their circumstances.

Build long-term relationships

When objects can be monitored and managed remotely, the scope for long-term service relationships grows. You’re no longer limited to a one-off sales transaction: you can provide all manner of ongoing support.

Reduce costs

In the case of smart meters, by setting up a conversation between objects, the power company can shift demand patterns in its favour.

This allows it to reduce costs and manage its operations more effectively, which will lead to higher profitability.


Internet of things blurs the line between bits and atoms

Imagine googling your home to find your child’s lost toy, or remotely turning on the tumble dryer for yet another cycle – after it has text you that the clothes were still damp, or your plant tweeting you to be watered.

It might have been sci-fi just a decade ago, but with the Internet forcing its way into every aspect of our lives, cyberspace is leaking out into the real world. In the past few months, companies ranging from giants such as Google to small start-ups have been touting the possibility of interconnecting people and objects – lightbulbs, fridges, cars, buildings – to create an internet of things.

Many say this is a trend bound to hit us all in the near future. “Some of the things that are possible are truly unbelievable,” says Constantine Valhouli from the Hammersmith Group, a strategy consulting firm.

“We’ve moved from a desktop internet to mobile phones and mobile internet – the next step is buildings and objects, enabling us to communicate with them directly or enabling them to even bypass people entirely and communicate directly with each other.” Imagine a production line where machines alert one another about production problems or bottlenecks, or cars that warn each other about driving conditions or a crash on the road ahead.

The internet’s next big frontier


In its early days the internet was seen simply as a way of transferring data across large distances but it is now playing an ever increasing part in our lives.

David Reid reports on what is seen as the next big frontier for the web – called the internet of things – allowing you to use your smartphone to control your home heating, pay for parking and even monitor your own fitness.



Does the Internet of Things need its own Internet?

Mobile operators believe their networks will enjoy a second life as the backbone of the internet of things, but a French startup Sigfox begs to differ. It’s building a dedicated network in France designed to connect objects and machines, not people. So far, carriers’ confidence is well founded. Mobile operators are using their 2G and mobile broadband networks to connect everything from jukeboxes to ice machines, and as mobile phone penetration nears 100 percent, a good deal of carrier growth is dependent on these new machine-to-machine (M2M) subscriptions.

But a French startup named Sigfox is challenging that accepted wisdom. Sigfox business development chief and Internet of Things of evangelist Thomas Nicholls said that cellular networks were meant to connect humans, not objects. Sigfox is proposing to build an alternate wireless network dedicated solely to linking together the Internet of Things.

Our mobile phones are always on and ready to receive and make phone calls, update our Facebook and Twitter feeds or download new email, but the majority of objects linked to the network will connect rarely. A GPS tracker in a vehicle or shipping container may send out its coordinates just once a day. A smart meter may link back to its utility company’s servers once a week. Many of the sensors being embedded in devices from vending machines to security cameras only transmit when something goes wrong, meaning a M2M module may wait months if not years between connections to the network.

Sigfox has developed a wireless architecture using ultra narrow-band modulation techniques that can theoretically support millions of devices with only a handful of network transmitters. Using the unlicensed frequencies commonly used for baby monitors and cordless phones (868 MHz in Europe and 915 MHz in the US), Sigfox SAYS IT can provide the same coverage with a single tower that a cellular network could provide with 50 to 100 cell sites. Sigfox is building a network covering all of France with 1,000 transmission sites, and Nicholls estimates that the company could do the same in the US with 10,000 transmitters. The radio modules embedded in objects are about the size of two thumbnails, and they transmit at power levels 50 times lower than their cellular M2M counterparts. Such low consumption levels mean that objects that normally have no external power supply could remain connected for as a long as 20 years before their module batteries would require recharging.