The Internet of Things (IoT) will have a sweeping effect on the economy and society, as interconnected devices—that is, the sharing of data from nearly every location—enable wide-ranging systems to work together in ways we have only just started to imagine. Already IoT is transforming business practices and enabling more advanced decisions by allowing products to be precisely tracked, environmental conditions to be remotely monitored, and errors to be detected and remedied before they cause large-scale problems. With access to the higher volumes of information that networks of sensors can provide, the systems can be further adapted to handle more advanced decisions. This is a field being driven by cutting-edge innovations of both hardware and software, and small and medium enterprises in Japan are at the edge of developments that have the potential to change the world.
The Power of Producing Data from the Dark
As computers, IoT devices need electricity to function. However, the very ubiquity and versatility that make them so useful also make powering them a challenge. “All these devices require a power supply, and traditional methods are too expensive and wasteful,” says Ito Tomoko, CEO of inQs. Connecting every device to a permanent power supply can be impossible, and continually replacing rechargeable batteries is expensive, time-consuming and sometimes even dangerous. “The device we’ve developed removes this bottleneck from the development of IoT.” The company has recently produced a new type of photovoltaic cell, the SQ-DSSC, made from silicon dioxide (SiO2). Unlike current photovoltaic cells, which require bright sunlight to produce electricity, the SQ-DSSC is sensitive to a wider spectrum of light, both visible and invisible, producing power from intensities of just 5 lux, the brightness of a single candle. This makes it ideal for powering edge devices such as sensors in the rather darkened area of factories and anywhere that may not have constant bright illumination.
An additional advantage of inQs’ one-of-a-kind innovation is that it doesn’t depend on scarce resources; SiO2, their primary component, is low-cost and abundant, only gaining its photovoltaic qualities after inQs’ patented processing. “One of my biggest inspirations came when I was working in superconductor research, when I saw that up to half the power produced was lost during transmission,” Ito continues. “The SQ-DSSC allows power to be produced at the immediate site with no waste.” inQs is also working on scaling their photovoltaic material up to window size, potentially enabling the creation of a wide range of building materials capable of generating power and even performing smart functions.
Navigating the Future of IoT with Precision Mapping
For IoT applications, one of the most anticipated technological developments is the successful deployment of autonomous vehicles, for which precise location data is absolutely essential. Dynamic Map Platform (DMP) Executive Officer Amagai Hiromichi explains that most of us have access to GPS data in our smartphones, but due to atmospheric interference this data is only accurate to about 10 meters. DMP has developed a proprietary algorithm that can undo the effects of this interference to achieve centimeter-level accuracy, enough for navigating curves and making lane selections. Currently, even non-autonomous vehicles are being equipped with sensors that can detect their surroundings, but these are only capable of seeing about 100 meters, which, at highway speeds, it is like walking in the dark. The DMP’s data on the other hand makes it possible for these systems to see up to a kilometer or more ahead, enabling, for example, autonomous vehicles to make safer navigation choices. ”The big differences between our work and that of other companies using satellite data is that they are typically using the data the way a human would, producing a map and then making measurements. We use it to construct a three-dimensional environment in which each data point carries additional information that computer sensors can use to optimize navigation.” As a result, vehicular systems are able to make much better use of it as the high-precision 3D positional map data.
Already DMP is part of a partnership of nine automotive companies to create a standardized data resource that vehicles can use, and they are looking into other applications for their work. “What we are ultimately aiming for is to create a digital twin of the world. And with this highly advanced dataset as ‘digital infrastructure data,’ we could enhance city infrastructure management with VR/AR technologies, the three-dimensional mapping could be applied to making advanced disaster simulations more accurate for better resilience against floods. I can see vast potential in this data,” Amagai declares.
Chips on Paper, Bandage or Plastic
“IoT is not only driven by software, but also by the accumulation of more semiconductors, and despite the demands for high performance and faster speeds, which require ever-smaller chip sizes, the basic fabrication methods have not changed for many years. The future of 5G has been announced, but it’s not truly here yet,” explains Hirata Katsunori, founder and CEO of Connectec Japan. The breakthrough made by Connectec Japan is their unique MonsterPAC fabrication method, which lowers bonding temperatures from 260˚C (500˚F) down to between 170˚C (338˚F) and 80˚C (176˚F). High fabrication temperatures are a long-standing roadblock in the development of true 5G, as smaller components are susceptible to damage during fabrication: “The heat from traditional fabrication limits chip sizes to a pitch, or distance between circuits, of 40 microns,” says Hirata. “At this size, a smartphone capable of true 5G performance would be the size of a laptop and too hot to hold. By lowering bonding temperatures, our method allows pitches of just 10 microns, making full-spec 5G possible. Compared to current devices described as 5G, this is more like 6G.”
The lower temperature fabrication pioneered by Connectec Japan also makes it possible for circuits to be mounted on materials that were previously impossible, such as paper or flexible plastic films. “The value of IoT is the data the devices share, so overcoming the barrier of high temperatures could allow devices to be mass-produced from very temporary materials, like bandages that could collect data for insurance companies.” Hirata sees these innovations as having much greater potential than just smaller chips, and says the basic technology is fully ready and has been demonstrated to potential partners throughout Japan.
Looking toward the Global Stage
High-tech is continually producing surprises as it evolves, and Japan’s small and medium enterprises are keen to bring their innovations to the world stage. “The applications that can use our technology will continue to grow,” says Ito, “so we are strongly considering our overseas expansion plans from the end of this year. Potential partners are always very surprised when we demonstrate our device producing power from a darkened room.” Hirata has set his sights on more long-term goals: “If I am not mistaken, we have advanced to producing CPUs that aren’t supposed to be produced until three years from now. Because we never stop looking ahead to how customers will encounter problems in the future, and then casting back from there to understand what we need to do now.”
Note: All Japanese names in this advertorial are given in the traditional format, with the family name preceding the given name.
To learn more about inQs Co., Ltd., click here.
To learn more about Dynamic Map Platform Co., Ltd., click here.
To learn more about CONNECTEC JAPAN Corporation, click here.