The inspiration for Arm’s new sensors came from passive radio-frequency identification tags found in credit cards, supermarket shelves and pet collars © FT montage; Dreamstime

The carnivorous triffid plant first entered the public imagination in John Wyndham’s science fiction novel in 1951. Almost 70 years later, the botanical predators have re-emerged as the inspiration behind battery-less sensors capable of delivering the internet of things (IoT).

“Project Triffid” was centre stage at Arm Holdings’ virtual developer conference in October as the UK-based chip designer discussed how its technology could be used beyond the low-power requirements of smartphone semiconductors in the virtually no-power world of IoT.

The inspiration came from radio-frequency identification (Rfid) tags — the billions of passive tags embedded in credit cards, supermarket shelves and pet collars that only wake up when passed over by a sensor that can read them.

Arm’s notion was that it could create a computational version of Rfid that could not only store data but use it. Power could be harnessed whenever a reader passed over the tag.

That would have a big impact on the logistics industry, in particular in food production and transport.

James Myers, engineer at Arm, said “Triffid Tags” would allow light or temperature sensors to monitor if perishable foods had been stored correctly. The tags could also be used in retail food packaging to warn if the product inside was unsafe.

The technology could be deployed in products such as footwear by providing with data about a wearer’s gait © Scott Eisen/Bloomberg

The technology could also be deployed in footwear to give data about the wearer’s gait without the need to remove or recharge sensors in the shoe. The sleeping sensor could also be revived to ensure the materials are returned to the manufacturer when the shoe was ready to be recycled.

Simon Segars, chief executive of Arm, said Project Triffid was still at the concept stage but had the potential to become widespread in the future, potentially in billions of devices. He pointed to high-end technology developed for use in Formula One cars that goes on to be used in normal road cars, as an example.

Combining connectivity with the promise of the internet of things has been one of the driving forces in the telecoms sector in recent years, with companies seeing it as a potential growth driver beyond their core consumer businesses.

Simon Segars, chief executive of Arm, said Project Triffid was still at the concept stage but had the potential to become widespread in the future © AFP via Getty Images

Paul Lee, global head of research for technology, media, and telecommunications at Deloitte, said logistics had already become dependent on data connectivity, with 4G networks underpinning the huge rise in home deliveries during the pandemic. That trend will continue as the constraints on data use are lifted by better connectivity and the introduction of 5G networks.

“5G is likely to be a core enabler of the growing automation of processes across multiple verticals,” Mr Lee said. “By 2025, we would expect every [company listed on the UK’s] FTSE 350 to have deployed an application — or more likely multiple applications — that rely on 5G.”

Much of that work will come when 5G connectivity is combined with edge networking, which has become a happy hunting ground for both telecoms and technology companies looking to deliver low latency networks — which can process high volumes of data at speed.

Verizon, the US telecoms company, has partnered with Microsoft’s Azure division to provide network capacity to logistics company Ice Mobility that will enable computer vision-assisted product packaging. The reduction in packaging errors could improve processing time within a factory by between 15 and 30 per cent, while reducing costs and speeding up product launches, according to Mike Mohr, chief executive of Ice.

UK telecoms group BT has built a private 5G network to connect various needs ranging from future connected vehicles to virtual reality headsets to improve logistics at Belfast Harbour in Northern Ireland. “This will act as a springboard for Belfast Harbour to achieve its ambition to be the world’s best regional smart port and an innovation hub for the region,” said Gerry McQuaid, head of BT Enterprise.

Yet not everyone is convinced. William Webb, a former president of the Institution of Engineering & Technology in London and founder of machine-to-machine technology company Neul, said the prospect of a sensor-rich environment sounded “very compelling” but that the industry had overpromised in the past. Mr Webb recalled that in 2010, a predicted 50bn internet of things devices by 2020 had in reality ended up more like 8.5bn.

Still in place are barriers to widespread adoption of such technologies. Mr Webb, for example, advised an airport on a potential integrated logistics process. But that did not get off the ground partly because of a lack of standardised internet of things technology that could be deployed globally across all airports, and partly because of the complexity of integrating an airport’s IT systems.

Mr Webb also argued that deploying a logistics system with a sensor on every item could prove too costly for logistics companies. “That is the problem for IoT in logistics — much of the value is already realised with simpler solutions, making it hard to justify the cost of the utopian solution,” he said.

Arm’s Project Triffid perhaps offers a glimpse into how to bring those costs down to a manageable level and finally deliver on IoT’s promise in the 5G age.

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