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Internet of Things July 2018 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Guy Garrud

In Vivo Networking

Why is this topic significant?

Advanced RFID technology could have a dramatic impact on diagnosis and treatment of a wide range of illnesses. Moreover, the technology could offer turnkey advantages to other RFID and IoT applications.

Description

Radio-frequency identification (RFID) enables remote communication between a reader and a small device or "tag." Passive RFID tags use power from the inquiring radio signal to emit a response without the tag's requiring its own dedicated power source. However, passive RFID has a very limited range (typically a few centimeters) and is susceptible to distortion or signal attenuation, especially when other items lie between the tag and the reader.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Brigham and Women's Hospital (Boston, Massachusetts) have developed a new technique that the team reports enables communication with small battery-less devices at distances of up to 100 feet (38 meters) in clear air and up to 10 centimeters within the body of a pig. The MIT team's technique uses multiple antennas to transmit a signal, with each antenna sending specific signals that then interfere constructively in the vicinity of the RFID tag. The researchers highlight that the technology can enable communication with a device inside the body from a distance, which could have a wide range of applications in the medical sector. In particular, the researchers highlight the potential for using the team's technique for targeted drug delivery, for monitoring internal medical sensors, and even for deep-brain stimulation.

The MIT researchers have dubbed the new technology "In Vivo Networking." The MIT team plans to present its findings in detail at the annual Special Interest Group on Data Communication in August 2018.

Implications

Powering small low-power IoT devices such as sensors and small actuators is an important technological challenge. The MIT team's research could find use in providing energy to small devices through radio-frequency transmission. Key factors for the further development of the technology are the amount of supplied power and whether individual applications will warrant the inefficiency associated with long-distance wireless energy transmission.

The MIT team's research has clear applications in the medical sector. What's more, researchers could easily adapt the team's approach to other RFID applications in both existing and nascent markets.

For example, in logistics applications, increasing the range of passive RFID tags would enable cheaper tagging of goods. A company could go from applying relatively expensive active RFID tags, which incorporate batteries, at the pallet level to instead applying passive tags to individual items, greatly improving inventory granularity.

Impacts/Disruptions

The MIT researchers' technique appears not to rely on any particularly groundbreaking science, and if the basic principle can apply to existing off-the-shelf technology, bringing a product to market should be relatively swift in comparison with doing more fundamental scientific research.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, logistics, warehousing, sensor networks, motion tracking, predictive maintenance

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Frequency Spectrum Wild West

Why is this topic significant?

Allocation of frequency bands for wireless communication is an important consideration for Internet of Things developers. Some are exploring options outside the familiar cellular and Wi-Fi frequency ranges.

Description

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a wireless transmitter that is capable of rapidly switching frequencies in order to transmit data packets at different frequencies, making interception of the signals more difficult. The researchers highlight the technology's potential to increase the security of wireless data transmission. Rapid-frequency-switching technology may also find use in solving a different problem: interference between devices using unregulated parts of the radio-frequency spectrum.

In June 2018, market-research company ABI Research reported that the low-power wide-area- (LPWA-) network market is dominated by noncellular technologies, with the French company Sigfox having the largest market share of LPWA connections. Indeed, ABI notes that in 2017, 93% of LPWA connections were through private networks.

Unlike the more tightly regulated radio bands used by cellular networks, various parts of the industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) portion of the radio spectrum are available for unlicensed applications. Wi-Fi uses parts of the ISM spectrum near 2.4 and 5 gigahertz (GHz). In contrast, Sigfox and various vendors that use the competing LoRaWAN standard use ISM frequencies below 1 GHz. These frequencies have favorable characteristics for forming relatively long-range, low-power radio links. But operating in ISM bands means that companies don't have exclusive use of the spectrum space, resulting in potential interference from other ISM users. And nations make only very limited spectrum below 1 GHz available for ISM use.

Signal interference is also a potential issue for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Technology website The Register recently highlighted that the International Civil Aviation Organization allocated the 5,030-to-5,091-megahertz band for UAV control, which has potential to overlap with the 5 GHz bands used by Wi-Fi networks.

Implications

Increasing the numbers of devices using the limited bandwidth of the radio-frequency spectrum increases the likelihood of devices' experiencing interference when attempting to send and receive data. Areas with large numbers of devices such as city centers, airports, and hospitals are at particular risk of signal overcrowding.

Signal interference could provide a motivator for companies to minimize their use of wireless data transmission, for example, by using several local wireless aggregator nodes throughout a facility rather than a single central base station. Companies may also adopt various signaling standards depending on the relative importance of an application. For example, an airline could transmit safety-critical data over licensed frequency space rather than risk interference, whereas airlines could send lower-priority data such as tracking data for individual suitcases via an unlicensed band.

Impacts/Disruptions

The success of Sigfox and other noncellular wide-area wireless-network standards presents a potential challenge to cellular providers that are marketing next-generation wireless technologies that aim at IoT applications. Mobile communications services have recently increased efforts to implement 3GPP's 2016 IoT standards (LTE Cat NB1 and LTE Cat M1) that operate in licensed spectrum bands that vary in different regions.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: High

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Health care, logistics, shipping, supply-chain management, IoT-device development, security, retail

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: