Biometrics-taking charge of power consumption

 Fredrik Ramberg, SVP of R&D at Fingerprints tells Douglas Blakey how innovation in biometrics is enabling the integration of biometric sensors into new embedded form factors without access to a large power source

Consumers may be sceptical about the convenience of new biometric form factors that don’t traditionally need charging, such as payment cards, given their experience with smartphones. But now after much R&D, ultra-low-power biometric sensors are embedded into payment cards without a battery, taking power from the existing payments infrastructure.

Consumers are increasingly embracing biometric technology in their daily lives. For example, over 80% of consumers have access to some form of biometrics via their mobile phone.

Use cases beyond mobile are also on the rise, with several rollouts of biometric payment cards scheduled for later this year. Moreover, access sensors are being integrated in a range of consumer devices, including smart suitcases. Yet some consumers remain skeptical about the convenience of biometrics.

“The benefits of biometrics in mobile are easy to see,” says Fredrik Ramberg, SVP of R&D at Fingerprints.

“But what about other use cases? Wouldn’t it be a hassle to charge your debit card every other day just to be able to pay for your groceries?”

Ramberg tells Verdict Payments the concern makes sense. Smartphones have big batteries able to power biometric sensors alongside all their other applications.

So, it would be plausible to expect that new form factors, such as biometric payment cards, would need large batteries.

“Luckily, however, this concern is unwarranted. Modern, ultra-low-power biometric technology makes it possible to power sensors from a reader or point of sale (POS) terminal at a tap. This allows biometric solutions to deliver greater security to consumers in a wide variety of use cases without infringing on the user experience.”

what’s in a name?

Once biometrics entered the mobile industry, Fingerprint’s R&D team began optimising the power of sensors so they would not compete with power-hungry processors and did not use any power when inactive.

While the mobile sensor market boomed, it was clear biometrics had potential to enhance so many other aspects of daily life. It was important to look beyond mobile – to embedded applications where a large back-up power source, such as the battery in a smartphone, is not always available. Developing even lower-power sensors was a key priority for Fingerprints.

The company name, is after all, Fingerprint Cards.

Adds Ramberg: “By championing a design strategy for low-power biometric sensors right from the start, over time we have been able to optimise and finetune our sensor designs for low-power embedded applications.

“Now, as biometrics gathers momentum in new industries, such as payments and access control, Fingerprints’ technological edge in low-power sensors is starting to pay off.”

low power, high security

Just as in mobile sensors, biometric sensors in cards use no power when inactive, but crucially, they only use a minimal amount of power when in use.

By deploying such low-power biometric sensors in payment cards, the sensors can harvest energy collected from readers and the NFC fields. It is similar, for example, to the way that contactless cards are powered by POS terminals. In the payment card example, the entire fingerprint authentication process, consisting of an image capture and matching, consumes so little power that it can harvest the energy it needs from the terminal.

As a result, it does not impact on the operation of the secure element.

“From a privacy and security perspective, this means that the entire operation is performed on the card without any information being transferred to the terminal.”

And so, consumers and banks can rest assured that no sensitive biometric data ever leaves the hands of consumers.

As a result, biometric payment cards forgo the need for a battery and can deliver the same UX of contactless, just with greater security.

Possible uses do not end with payments. The same ultra-low-power technology is also being used for other ultra-low-power applications, such as access control cards, small fobs and rings.

the power is in the detail

“To achieve this level of power-efficiency without compromising UX, it’s important to get a few details right,” explains Ramberg.

“Firstly, you need to optimise every part of the system from start-up to image capture and read-out, to ensure that you can operate fast without generating any current peaks. Superb system performance is also key to reducing the complexity of image processing or the need to take several images.

superb performance with ultra-power consumption

“Achieving this is no mean feat and delivering the highest quality sensors is an ongoing effort. Our R&D team has spent the last 20 years optimising and fine-tuning sensing pixels and system architecture to ensure superb system performance while maintaining ultra-low-power consumption.”

At the same time, it is essential to meet the power requirements of the existing infrastructure. In the case of payments cards, that means the existing POS terminals.

Lastly, it is important to keep power consumption relatively consistent and below a certain peak to avoid faults in the communication with the terminal.

Using the latest ultra-low-power sensors, it is possible to have a completely contactless, battery-free biometric card that works in the same way as today’s payment cards. This has changed the game for payments, creating both a more secure and more convenient authentication process.

Ramberg concludes: “The ability of low-power sensors to integrate biometrics into a wide variety of form factors will bring many benefits to consumers. After all, its endless possibilities to make consumers’ daily lives more convenient and secure is surely biometrics’ greatest power.”