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Exploring Energy
Efficient Architectures
in Passive Wireless Nodes
for IoT Applications

Vyasa Sai and


Marlin H. Mickle

Abstract
The evolution of embedded intelligence
in passively powered wireless nodes
has led to the expansion of the application space for passive Radio Frequency
Identification (RFID) and Internet of
Things (IoT). This article presents
recent advancements in energy efficient
designs in wireless passive communication nodes and its related applications.

I. INTRODUCTION
apid progress towards ubiquitous networked communication technologies and the
evolution of miniaturized wireless
and mobile devices have led to the
availability of various applications
and services at any time and in any
place. Internet of Things (IoT) is a
rising technological phenomenon
that enables the connections of the
physical and the computing worlds forming the next link
in the chain of ubiquitous communication. The humanhuman to human-thing to thing-thing (also known as
(machine-to-machine) (M2M)) communication paradigms

Digital Object Identifier 10.1109/MCAS.2014.2314265


Date of publication: 20 May 2014

48

IEEE circuits and systems magazine

digital vision

is part of the IoT information revolution [1]. This new IoT


network paradigm is an intelligent way of connecting
existing devices with new devices through radio sensing or identifying technologies such as Radio Frequency
Identification (RFID) or sensor networks [2], [3]. Each
device node collects, transmits and processes sensor data
and transmits back to the central node through various

1531-636X/14/$31.002014IEEE

second QUARTER 2014

Internet of Things (IoT) is a rising technological phenomenon that enables


the connections of the physical and the computing worlds forming the next
link in the chain of ubiquitous communication.

Terminal Nodes

network interfaces. Fig. 1 shows a basic framework of


Passive RFID tags are battery-free nodes that use simple
the IoT [1]. This is an IoT architecture that interfaces logic to respond with a unique code or data, when queried
the physical world with the Internet through associated by an interrogator for the purpose of identifying objects
communication networks and edge technologies such as [6]. The concept of remotely feeding a tag on the power
RFID. The terminal nodes shown in Fig. 1 typically rep- from an external RF source has led to the emergence of
resent sensors, RFID tags, RFID sensors, data processing the widely known passive RFID technology. Passive RFID
and communication circuits. These terminal nodes com- technology is becoming increasingly common in different
municate the recorded data back to the requested gate- environments such as home, office, industry, hospitals,
way device referred to as the RFID based interrogator. library, etc enabling quick and anytime access to real-time
This data channel provides information to host system data on uniquely identifiable passive nodes throughout
or any other information management system connected their entire lifetime [6]. The integration of passive RFID
to the Internet for processing at any time and place. The with WSNs is a rising phenomenon to improve the sensing
RFID sensing enabled IoT expands the existing base of capabilities free of battery lifetime constraints. Passive
services and applications in the fields such as logistics/ RFID based sensor nodes are part of the wireless passive
supply, manufacturing, agricultural management, health sensor networks (WPSNs) that mainly deal with the colcare, home automation, transportation, military, environ- lection or storage of data, and transmission of that data
mental monitoring and disaster warning [1].
back to the interrogator [7]. The interrogator primarily
Terminal nodes are an important part of the IoT net- collects and processes the data sent by the nodes.
work in providing efficient services. These nodes typically
The existing status of the development of key techrepresent sensors. Deployment of wireless sensor based nologies such as RFID, Sensor, Smart embedded technolIoT networks for environmental monitoring is limited due ogy, Nanotechnology of IoT implementations around the
to the active life span of the on-board non-rechargeable world are in application, exploratory, experimental and
power source of the terminal node. The number of sensors research stages [8]. Currently there is no unanimous sysrequired may be very large for such an application. The sen- tem built for the IoT with respect to privacy, security and
sors are battery powered, and there is overhead involved standardizations. Hence, it might take a while to stanfor the periodic maintenance of the battery-assisted sen- dardize the integration of the evolving smart RFID techsors. There has been much research into prolonging the nology into the IoT framework. This article emphasizes
limited lifetime of wireless sensor
networks (WSNs) through efficient
circuit, architecture and communication techniques [4], [5]. In
Host
summary, the use of such an IoT
Information
Interrogator
Mgt
network is strictly limited by the
System
battery life of the terminal nodes.
Wide Area
It is a major challenge to manage
Communication
Networks
the maintenance cost of replacing
Host
Information
batteries of such numerous nodes
Mgt
Interrogator
especially in hard-to-service areas.
System
Internet
Hence the energy management of
the terminal node of the IoT is an
important factor in extending the
Figure 1. A basic model for Internet of Things.
lifetime of the sensors.

Vyasa Sai and Marlin H. Mickle are with the RFID Center of Excellence, Swanson School of Engineering, University of Pittsburgh, PA, 15261, USA (e-mail: vyasa.sai@
ieee.org).
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49

Passive node capabilities need to be explored with respect


to affordable power consumption, possibly to suit target applications,
in order to enable more than just identification.

on the need to integrate passive smart RFID technology


with IoT to enable new applications. This article focuses
on the evolution of energy efficient smart RFID based terminal nodes in such passive communication systems.
II. Need for Smart Passive RFID Nodes
Conventional battery assisted WSN are generally made
up of a set of autonomous multifunctional sensor
nodes distributed throughout a specific environment
for monitoring real world data. These sensor nodes are
used to collect environmental data and transfer this
data to the user through the network. Besides collecting raw data, a node may also need to perform computations on the recorded data, eliminating the need to
transfer raw data to a central server for each measurement [9], [10].
Consider a scenario with many raw sensor data readings that must be sampled simultaneously so as not to
skew the measurements in time and correspondingly
reducing the possible control bandwidth. The number
of sensors required may be very large for some applications, e.g. environmental monitoring. This situation is
illustrated in Fig. 2 for a set of n sensor nodes. In Fig. 2,
f represents the time taken for data transmission from
each sensor to the central server and T represents the
time taken for the preprocessing or conditioning the

Sensor 1

Time

Sensor 2

Time

Sensor n

Time

Figure 2. Timing chart for a sensor network.


50

data at the individual sensors done in parallel. In many


cases, the raw sensor data must be preprocessed or
conditioned before being used in system calculations
in order to reduce the transmitted data. The raw data
readings are compared to a threshold value in order
to determine whether this data needs to be transmitted or not. If the raw sensor data reading is above the
threshold value, it is transmitted to the central server
instantaneously; else an aggregate value is transmitted
that includes the current reading along with the other
data readings below the threshold [9]. The transmission
time ^nfh especially in such a scenario is significantly
reduced as opposed to preprocessing done at the central control where each and every sensor reading needs
to be transmitted.
This decrease in the amount of transmitted data
reduces the frequent radio transmissions and is critical
in increasing the power efficiency of the node [9]. There
are many scenarios, in which the sensor data at each
node is preprocessed or conditioned before the central
server can further use it e.g. biomedical, physiological
monitoring, environmental monitoring, etc, [9], [10]. The
main design constraint in such applications is the finite
power budget for each battery-assisted sensor node, as
they require continuous and detailed monitoring over a
long period of time.
Power management is a much serious design constraint in smart passive nodes as compared to batteryassisted nodes. Such passive nodes operate on the
received incoming power and are based on the energy
harvesting concepts and techniques used in passive
RFID tags [11], [12]. The wireless passive sensing for
enhanced computation is an emerging research area
and there is little documentation on all the power efficient scenarios applicable to passive sensor devices.
In [11], [13][16] efficient antenna designs, low-power
transceivers were introduced for passive nodes. But it
is not only important to have energy efficient front-end
and power unit designs; there is also a need to have low
power core designs that allow greater ranges for passive nodes.
Passive RFID tags are known to have limited functionality, commonly applicable to simple tracking and
identification. In recent years, there has been an evolution in the sensing and communication capabilities

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III. Overview of Power Consumptions


in Passive Sensor Nodes
In this section, an overview of the computation capabilities of passive RFID based nodes along with their
corresponding power consumptions is presented. Fig. 3
presents the power consumption values of designs ranging from a typical RFID passive tag to a smart passive
RFID node.
A. Basic Passive Nodes
A passive RFID tag mainly comprises of a microchip, and
an antenna, which can be attached to an object as the
identifier of the object. The main function of the tags
baseband processor is to transmit a unique code or data
to identify objects upon being queried by an RFID interrogator. The data exchange between an interrogator and
a tag is through RF signals. The power values reported in
Fig. 3 for Man et al. [21] and Yang et al. [22] correspond
to a baseband processor design of the passive RFID
tag. Such RFID designs are typically not programmable,
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6000
Power Consumption (W)

5400

5000
4000
3000
2000
846

1000

3.45 0.96

5.1

870

et

et
al
Jo
sh
ua
et
Al
al
an
so
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et
Sa al
ie
ta
l

Yi
n

al

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et

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Ya
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an

et

al

of passive RFID nodes [17]. This led to the emergence


of smart passive RFID enabled sensor devices that are
known to use microcontrollers for sensor data processing [17]. In this context, passive node capabilities need
to be explored with respect to affordable power consumption, possibly to suit target applications, in order
to enable more than just identification.
Smart passive nodes provide the basis for developing
new applications to enable RFID beyond basic identification and simple tracking applications. These wireless
passive nodes target the application domains such as
security, human implants, unmanned medical nursing,
mobile robotics etc. [17][20]. Privacy and security concerns with RFID tags, typically used in financial transactions and tracking are well known. One of the ways
to mitigate the security and privacy concerns is to have
computation flexibility that enables implementation of
reasonably strong cryptographic algorithms at the passive nodes [17]. A significant medical application in the
area of human implants is to embed a passive device
(node) with reasonable signal processing capabilities in
a transplanted portion of the human tissue for passively
monitoring the patients condition. This is an important
application as real-time signal processing and conditioning on discrete time-sampled medical signal data helps
accurately measure the required signal activity leading
to an effective treatment for the patients condition. The
major challenge in using such a smart passive node is
power management [20].
An IoT framework, employing a smart WPSN as their
terminal node network requires an investigation of
energy efficient processing solutions.

Passive Processor Design Type


Figure 3. Power comparisons of passive nodes.

as they have conventional fixed function ICs as their


processors.
In Cho et al. [23] and Yin et al. [24], the sensor integrated passive RFID tag has a fixed ID assigned to each
sensor in order to support the field deployment of the
sensors. The associated baseband processor reports
sensed data in addition to the RFID tag functionality. In
[21][24], the baseband processors do not support any
arbitrary computation and thus providing a restricted
computational flexibility to the node.
B. Smart Passive Nodes
In the context of having preprocessing done at the sensor side, existing smart passive nodes (Joshua et al. [25],
Alanson et al. [26] and Sai et al. [27]) have higher power
consumptions in comparison to the basic RFID tag design
types as illustrated in Fig. 3. INTEL Research in collaboration with the University of Washington at Seattle has
developed a battery-free WISP (Wireless Identification
and Sensing Platform) sensing and computation platform
that uses a complete programmable microcontroller [25],
[26]. WISP design is the first of the enhanced passive RFID
platforms to have powered a 16-bit microcontroller using
the incoming RF energy from the RFID interrogator. Such
enhanced passive RFID sensing platforms use programmable microcontrollers for processing the sensor node
data [25], [26]. The power consumption values for [25]
and [26] represented in Fig. 3 are associated with microcontrollers used in WISP designs. In [25] and [26], the
microcontrollers are operated at 6MHz and 3MHz frequencies respectively. One of the significant challenges
faced with such WISP designs is managing the large power
IEEE circuits and systems magazine

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The combination of smart passive RFID with IoT illustrates the potential
of extending the application space to passive biomedical sensing,
environmental monitoring, defense, supply chain logistics,
transportation, health care, etc.

consumptions resulting due to the use of microcontrollers


as part of the passive RFID designs.
Our research, at the University of Pittsburghs RFID
Center of Excellence, involved exploring a target microcontrollers reduced instruction set architecture (ISA) for
low power applications [27]. The interrogator and a set
of passive nodes in combination are viewed as a wireless
SIMD distributed system with the remote execution unit
(REU) as the digital processing core of the passive node
[28]. In Sai et al., low power programmable REU based on
a subset of the 8051 ISA was introduced. The power consumption value for [27], shown in Fig. 3, corresponds to
a REU design operating at a clock frequency of 80 MHz.
The ongoing research efforts include the development of
asynchronous REU design targeting high instruction execution speeds and low power consumption.
Depending upon the application or design requirements, the processing unit can be any one of the three:
basic baseband processor (Cho et al. and Yin et al.),
microcontroller (Joshua et al. and Alanson et al.) or
REU (Sai et al.). In Fig. 3, the power consumption values of the processing units used in [21][27] are applicable for a supply voltage of 1.8, 1.1, 1.5, 0.8, 3, 8 and
1.1 Volts, respectively. The survey data presented in
Fig. 3 cannot be directly compared due to the use of different parameters such as supply voltage, technology,
implementation and architecture in each of the above
passive design implementations. But this survey gives a
general overview of power consumption values for various existing advancements in processing units for RFID
based passive nodes.

Baseband
C

REU

ADC
Sensors

Processing
Unit

Sensing Unit

Power Unit
Figure 4. Wireless passive sensor node architecture.

52

IV. key challenges to realize low power


smart passive nodes
The existing wireless passive nodes have laid the foundation to empower IoT, especially while providing the basis
for a low power and programmable passive processing unit
for distributed computing. But there is scope for development of passive node architectures, efficient energy harvesting techniques that are needed specifically for passive
smart sensing platforms to be used in IoT networks.
Typical wireless passive sensor node hardware blocks
are shown in Fig. 4. The antenna is connected to an
impedance matching circuit that feeds the received RF
signal from the interrogator to the RF power harvester
circuit. A typical power harvester circuit is a RF-to-DC
converter-capacitor network that acts as the power unit
for a WPSN as opposed to a battery, which is the power
unit in a WSN. This rectified DC power is stored in the
capacitor to be used whenever needed to operate the
node. Stream of serial data is extracted from the RF carrier based Amplitude shift keyed data by the demodulator that is part of the RF transceiver. Based on the
computational requirements of the node, the processing unit manages this serial data to receive the downlink
data from the interrogator. The uplink data is fed to the
modulator and by modifying the antenna impedance the
signal is backscattered from the node.
One of the key challenges in such passive nodes is
that it requires sufficient energy to be powered at long
distances. The restrictions on the amount of power transferred and the associated path loss adds responsibility
to the node for maximizing the energy received to activate it. There has been significant
progress in having low power RF
transreceiver and its corresponding components for passive node
systems [11], [13][16]. The main
goal for such transreceiver design
RF
especially the RF rectifier, the quiTransreceiver
escent current consumption is
Communication
kept minimum so that the miniUnit
mum operating voltage can be rectified with lowest possible input
power [17]. In case of the modulation and demodulation, for example, [17], [29] illustrate the EPC

IEEE circuits and systems magazine

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Effective energy harvesting circuits, passive communication


system standards along with innovative architectural solutions will be
necessary for a low power passive node to be successfully adopted
for passive RFID based IoT applications.

Gen 2 standard that uses ASK modulation on a 902-928


MHz frequency range of the carrier wave. In the context of
complex computations, there is still need for harvesting
circuits that provide sufficient power to the node to able
to operate on a continuous basis [30], [31].
Due to energy constraints, especially node architectures
using microcontrollers as the processing unit as in the case
of the WISP design needs the power management unit [17],
[25], [26]. One of the methods used in these WISP designs
for this purpose is the use of large storage capacitors (in
F). In case, if the power requirements of a single incoming
command are not met then the WISP is allowed to sleep
for many interrogator transmissions in order to accumulate charge on the capacitor [25]. This may not be a very
effective way of having efficient communication between
the interrogator and the passive node. There are ongoing
research efforts to be able to provide an energy efficient
way to deliver power to the passive node [30], [31].
Using innovative architectures for processing units,
such as the REU, is another avenue of providing energy
efficient solution [27], [28]. The data and program
instructions are stored on a powered interrogator providing wireless supervisory control for the REU at the node.
The interrogator and the passive node (REU) combination can be viewed as a complete processor or as multiple
processing units forming the basis for a wireless distributed SIMD processor. The design implementation used in
[27] is synchronous in nature. Use of effective asynchronous implementation of this synchronous design further
reduces the dynamic power consumption [18], [32].
However, a widespread adaptation of such SIMD architectures in a standard format requires further development of existing communication protocols, effective
CAD tools, new compilation techniques that focus on
optimizing the execution of distributed programs [28].
A combination of effective energy harvesting circuits, passive communication system standards along
with innovative architectural solutions will be necessary for a low power passive node to be successfully
adopted for IoT and passive RFID applications.
V. Conclusion
Low power computation intensive designs play an important role in embedding intelligence into the passive nodes
in order to realize IoT. The evolutionary perspective of
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recent advancements in the computational aspect of


wireless passive nodes applicable to an IoT framework
was presented in this article. The combination of smart
passive RFID with IoT illustrates the potential of extending the application space to passive biomedical sensing,
environmental monitoring, defense, supply chain logistics, transportation, health care, etc. Innovative research
and sustained development of both the smart passive
RFID technology and the IoT are necessary for the favorable advancements in ubiquitous networking.
Acknowledgment
The authors wish to acknowledge that this research
was part of the work done at the RFID Center of Excellence in the Swanson School of Engineering, University
of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA.
Vyasa Sai is currently working in the
graphics hardware division at Intel
Corporation, Folsom, CA, USA. He
received his Ph.D. from the Department of Electrical and Computer
Engineering at the University of
Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, USA in
2013. He has also received a M.S. degree in Electrical
and Computer Engineering at North Dakota State University, ND, USA and a B.Tech. degree in Electronics
and Communications Engineering at Jawaharlal Nehru
Technological University, India. His research interests
include Low Power Design, Hardware Security, VLSI,
RFID Design and Wireless Passive Device Architecture.
He has authored a book, coauthored a book chapter,
patent applications and several refereed journal publications in the fields of RFID, Low Power Electronics,
PRBG design for lightweight security. He has interned
at INTEL Corporation, Hillsboro, OR, USA in 2007. He
is an IEEE member since 2001. He is a member of the
Editorial Board for the International Journal of Radio
Frequency Identification Technology and Applications.
He is also a reviewer for Springer Circuits, Systems &
Signal Processing, IEEE/ASME International Conference
on Advanced Intelligent Mechatronics 2014, IEEE International Symposium on Circuits & Systems 2012, International Journal of Computers and Applications and
Journal Communications.
IEEE circuits and systems magazine

53

Marlin H. Mickle is currently Professor Emeritus of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He was formerly
the Bell of PA/ Bell Atlantic Professor,
Nickolas A. DeCecco Professor. He was
previously Professor of Computer Engineering, Telecommunications, and
Industrial Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.
He was the Director of the RFID Center of Excellence. He
received the B.S.E.E., M.S.E.E., and the Ph.D. University
of Pittsburgh in 1961, 1963, and 1967. Marlin received the
Carnegie Science Center Award for Excellence in Corporate Innovation2005; he has 35+ patents, received the
Pitt Innovator Award 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010
and 2011; 1988 Recipient of the Systems Research and
Cybernetics Award of the IIASSRC; the Robert O. Agbede
Faculty Award for Diversity, 200506; Distinguished
Alumnus, Department of Elec. & Comp. Engr.2008, a
member of the AIDC100, the Ted Williams Award from
AIM, and is a Life Fellow of the IEEE.

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