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Research Seeks to Produce Communication and Networking out of Thin Air

The "Internet of Things" is taking tiny, unfettered leaps forward in a research project underway at the University of Washington. A team led by an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science &  Engineering there is developing devices that are battery- and infrastructure-free. They're turning existing wireless signals (such as those generated through TV, cellular and Wi-Fi transmissions) into a source of power and a communication medium.

The specific technique uses "backscatter," the reflection of waves back in the same direction from where they originated. That's been the subject or previous research projects. What this latest work is attempting to do is create an ultra-low power sensor with an antenna and circuitry that can talk to Wi-Fi-enabled laptops or smartphones while consuming negligible power. The sensor seeks Wi-Fi signals and then encodes data through subtle changes made in the signals. Those tiny changes would be picked up by a device, enabling the sensor to communicate with a smartphone, wearable device or laptop and deliver the data it's collecting.

"If Internet of Things devices are going to take off, we must provide connectivity to the potentially billions of battery-free devices that will be embedded in everyday objects," explained Shyam Gollakota, the assistant professor who also runs the university's Networks and Wireless lab.

"You might think, how could this possibly work when you have a low-power device making such a tiny change in the wireless signal? But the point is, if you're looking for specific patterns, you can find it among all the other Wi-Fi reflections in an environment," added co-principal investigator Joshua Smith, an associate professor of computer science and engineering and of electrical engineering.

The big challenge for the researchers is that all of those existing signals are already packed with data and are fast-changing. So piling on additional data will be hard to achieve. Also, since the sensors will be powered through these ambient signals, their circuit designs must be highly efficient. The research will focus on the creation of algorithms for enabling the communication without the need for additional bandwidth or power.

The project is expected to produce "a complete network stack" enabling devices to co-exist with each other and with "legacy receivers" and to demonstrate applications in domains such as inventory and healthcare.

The researchers will shortly share their results at the Association for Computing Machinery's Special Interest Group on Data Communication's annual conference in Chicago. The team also plans to start a company based on the technology.

Funding is coming from multiple sources, including the university, the National Science Foundation, the U Washington Commercialization Gap Fund, the Qualcomm Innovation Fellowship and the Washington Research Foundation.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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