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12 January 2021

The race to the bottom is still worth winning in the IoT

Some sectors of the Internet of Things have been characterized disparagingly as a race to the bottom, suggesting this compromises quality and security. Yet only by racing to the bottom can the IoT overcome critical price barriers to the widespread adoption at scale essential for viability and utility in sectors such as healthcare, smart agriculture and asset tracking.

Vodafone is one operator that has talked up the race to the bottom in the context of IoT tracking for the pharmaceutical sector, with implications for the mass Covid-19 vaccine roll out currently gathering speed around the world.

Vodafone has been working with ARM, pharmaceutical group Bayer, chipmaker Altair Semiconductor and module manufacturer Murata to develop a printable smart label integrating cellular SIM functionality in a layer of silicon. The label also incorporates a battery, microprocessor, antenna, modem and two sensors, all within this printable package.

These labels are mathematically three-dimensional, even if typically only around 0.3 millimeters thick, but functionally they are 2D because they comprise just one layer of components. They are therefore printed in one pass, unlike objects that require 3D printing, because they comprise multiple layers laid down successively under computer control.

In this example, Bayer assumed control of the project with the key objective being to reduce the cost per label to a few dollars in order to make it economically viable for tracking many pharmaceutical products in transit, if not yet the very cheapest.

To keep opex costs down, the system also uses low power WAN communications where possible, with fall-back to full cellular. The two cellular LPWAN options, NB-IoT and LTE-M, are both supported. This integration is enabled through an agreement between Vodafone and ARM to establish default connectivity with zero-touch provisioning over either NB-IoT or LTE-M when that is available, in some cases over the operator’s own networks.

A key enabling factor, to bring costs down and shrink the packages in size, is the availability of iSIM (integrated SIM), incorporating the SIM code directly in the base cellular module, avoiding need not just for physical SIM trays but also separate chips as in eSIM (embedded SIM).

Once tracking has started it can operate in different ways, but to minimize power consumption and maximize battery life the labels only report automatically once a day, along with events on the basis of predefined triggers. Different functions can be implemented and in this case, there is a temperature sensor which is important since many pharmaceuticals need to maintained within specified ranges, and an accelerometer to sense movement or vibrations, helping to detect damage in transit.

The value of measuring temperature in transit has been underlined by a highly topical application, transportation of vaccines for Covid-19. This is because the world’s two principal vaccines both use the latest messenger RNA technology whereby genetic code needed to make the antigenic viral proteins that elicit a host immune response is delivered directly to the protein factories known as ribosomes within target human cells.

RNA is shortlived, comprising some delicate molecular bonds, and at normal temperatures often only survives about 20 minutes and so has to be cooled for longevity. One of these two vaccines, manufactured by Pfizer, has to be stored at -70C until close to the time of delivery, while the other from Moderna can be stored at normal freezer temperatures of -20C for six months and will then last 30 days in a standard fridge around 4C for a further month. The latter therefore has far less stringent shipping conditions, but both require at least some degree of temperature control during transportation.

It is the Pfizer vaccine that has most to gain from effective IoT tracking, given its stricter requirements. In order to reduce costs, Pfizer has developed a flexible Just In Time (JIT) strategy for vaccine delivery where the vials are shipped directly to the point of use, bypassing any intermediate storage that can hold the process up and increase energy consumption through refrigeration. These can be transported in commercially available freezers, standard hospital refrigeration units or Pfizer’s own containers cooled by dry ice (solid carbon dioxide), requiring ‘re-gasing’ renewal every five days. Whichever is used consumes increasing amounts of energy over time.

German enterprise IT application firm Software AG has been involved in the IoT tracking, which requires real temperature monitoring combined with triangulation positioning (GPS would require too much computation) to enable action to be taken quickly if the package starts warming up above its threshold. The process of handover between links in the transportation chain, for example from air to ground, are risk points and the JIT system has been optimized to minimize duration of these, coupled with surveillance to trigger actions such as invoking an emergency chemical cooling system attached to the package.

This then is a contemporary application of long-established cold chain monitoring, with an additional challenge being to ensure the battery life of tracking labels or components is at least equal to the journey time. It is certain that IoT will play a big role in vaccine shipment throughout the rest of the Covid-19 pandemic.

One other point of interest arising from these integrated IoT processes is what impact they will have on the LPWAN field. There has been some speculation they will provoke a migration from non-cellular LPWAN protocols such as LoRAWAN towards the two cellular options of LTE-M and NB-IoT, because of the latter two’s more straightforward integration with wide area mobile networks. The Bayer smart label application would seem to bear that out with its tight integration between NB-IoT, LTE-M and full cellular, but on the other hand LoRAWAN, combined with WiFi in some cases, has gained significant traction in healthcare tracking.