Feature Story

Better Connected: Powering the Future

by Sue Tabbitt

What is going to power the tens of billions of devices that will be hooked up and talking to each other by 2020? And, does it automatically follow that the communications will take place over the public digital highway? In a laboratory in Cambridge, UK, scientists and engineers have been working up some answers.

If the forecasters are to be believed, there will be 50 billion ‘things’ connected and sharing data over networks by the year 2020. But for this to happen, some fundamental issues need to be addressed. One is how these devices will be connected. Another is whether and to what extent these use the public Internet. A further and often overlooked question is how some of these devices will be powered. For example, if advanced health monitoring means more devices being implanted in people’s bodies, it would be safer and more viable long-term if these sensors didn’t need a battery. Similarly, if monitoring devices are to be incorporated within the fabric of new buildings to monitor for wear and tear, they will need a power source that will keep the embedded technology online for the lifetime of that building – which could be 100 years or more.

A technology innovation company in Cambridge in the UK is busy addressing all of these issues. Most of the 300+ people who work at The Technology Partnership (TTP) are scientists and engineers. They spend their time designing and developing next-generation technologies which commercial partners then take to market. A number of TTP’s activities currently have direct relevance to the emergence of an Internet of Things (IoT), from its work in wireless communications to consumer products and medical device design.

TTP prefers to think of the Internet of Things as a world of ‘Connected Devices’. It is a subtle distinction, but it acknowledges that many of the devices won’t be connected to the public Internet because of the sensitivity of the content they are transmitting. Rather, they may interact by way of closed networks or specialist cloud-based services. In other cases, objects will communicate directly with other devices such as smartphones using short-range wireless connections.

Making connected devices pay

The opportunity associated with connecting inanimate objects over a network, or directly to other devices, is that they can then be controlled remotely or interrogated for information, creating the potential for new types of use and for value-added services. The object must first have a digital microprocessor, interface and/or a sensor to enable the interaction. After that, it needs to be connected to a system or application that can understand and interact with the device – whether that’s a particular PC, a cloud-based service, a mobile app downloaded onto a smartphone, or another device or machine.

Dr Antony Rix, a senior consultant within TTP’s Communications and Wireless group, notes that for connected device solutions to be commercially viable, the value of the monitoring activity has to outweigh the cost of providing it. It is this that influences much of TTP’s work.

“We’re used to connecting a mobile phone or tablet directly to the Internet via a wireless mobile network, but this is an expensive way of connecting devices,” he says. “If it involves LTE or 3G, you’re talking about adding tens of dollars to the product price. But there are lots of other ways of connecting.”

Out-of-the-box thinking

For machine to machine (M2M) communications over a cellular network, an alternative is to use cheaper 2G/GSM networks, for example. “The typical cost of a 3G module so that you can connect a product to the Internet is $30-50; with GSM/GPRS it’s less than $10,” Dr Rix notes. With other connectivity alternatives, such as Bluetooth Smart, the cost could fall to $1 or less, he adds. “It’s this drop in cost that means applications start to make sense commercially – so that it becomes worth connecting the devices.”

Other options might include use of specialist wireless technology. One of TTP’s own solutions in this area, a short-range wireless technology called Matrix, has been designed to keep connection costs right down. It uses proprietary radio technology developed by TTP to enable secure, wireless connectivity for radio frequency identification (RFID), retail and security applications over distances of up to 500 meters. Communication takes place over the 868MHz and 900MHz license-free wireless bands, which have longer range and often lower congestion than the 2.4GHz band used by Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Not only is the solution very low cost, it also has very low power consumption.

Revolutionizing retail

One of the commercial partners using the Matrix platform is ZBD Solutions , which provides electronic shelf labels to retailers. “Using our Matrix technology, retailers can install digital displays with a battery life of 10 years,” Dr Rix explains. “For a supermarket selling 50,000 products, this presents an opportunity to replace paper-based shelf pricing information with a low-cost electronic display that can be updated automatically from the back office over a wireless connection. That’s a powerful business tool when you consider how often supermarket prices are changed, and the potential commercial penalties if the information on the shelves isn’t accurate.”

For consumers keen to track their weight or fitness over time using a smartphone app, the short-range connection might be provided by Bluetooth Smart, built into bathroom scales or an exercise device. As with TTP’s Matrix radio technology, Bluetooth Smart allows a product to collect data and communicate for extended periods of time using only a tiny battery. Analyst estimates suggest this ‘appcessory’ segment of the connected device market (peripheral devices feeding information to smartphone apps) will account for more than 10 billion devices by the year 2020.

Powering progress

That connected devices should be able to transmit their data while consuming minimal power is critical not only to keeping costs down, but also to extending the breadth of possible application. The trouble with batteries is that they need to be changed at some point, which is difficult if the device is embedded in a permanent structure or sensitive environment. Batteries also involve chemicals.

“If you remove the need for a battery from the equation altogether, the possibilities multiply,” Dr Rix says. “For example in motor sport, the heat generated means sensors involving batteries would be too dangerous to embed into cars to monitor the status of different components; the batteries would explode. Remove that constraint, and you’re suddenly able to do a lot of useful things.”

Battery-less medical implants

In the medical sphere, being able to activate sensors without the need for a native power source is game-changing too. Here, TTP has developed implants with wireless capabilities that are powered from outside the body. “This opens up the possibility to monitor how well someone is healing after an operation, for example,” Dr Rix explains. The key to this is radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology - non-contact use of radio-frequency electromagnetic fields to transfer data.

“It works in a very similar way to smartcards used on transport systems like the London Underground,” he says. “The reader creates an electromagnetic field, generating energy that is picked up by a nearby card or implant. This stores that energy for long enough to communicate information back to the external reader.”

What’s exciting is that the technology to enable this level of innovation is already here. “All we need are the partners to help us commercialize it,” Dr Rix says.

Safe passage over the Internet

So where does the Internet come into all of this, given how prominently it seems to feature in most descriptions of the new wave of hyperconnectivity? Whilst use of the web does increase the opportunities, by allowing communications to be transmitted more flexibly and over unlimited distance, it seems that for many applications it will be more appropriate if inter-device communications take place across a private subsection of the Internet.

“There are good security reasons why you might not want to use the public Internet to control the heating in your home remotely, for example,” Dr Rix warns. “The ability to see when your heating is on or off could indicate to thieves when you’re away from home. Also, giving your heating system a public Internet address means you need a firewall, and possibly anti-virus protection, which can become costly, power-hungry and difficult to maintain. For this kind of use it is more likely that you would connect to an appropriate cloud service that acts as a gateway, letting you control your device remotely but without it being publicly present on the Internet.”

A role for routers

The broadband router could become key to this type of application, Dr Rix suggests. “Today, the power consumption and cost of Wi-Fi silicon, and the need for secure access, means that only our smartest devices like computers, phones and tablets have access to the Internet through the router,” he notes. “If we unlock this - perhaps through developments like IEEE 802.11ah and improvements to the usability of pairing [the process of coupling one device with another] - many in-home devices will be able to connect to the Internet through the router.”

The potential here is huge, but there is no need to wait, he concludes: “The world of Connected Devices is being built now.”


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