Christos Papakyriacou, managing director of Alpha Micro Components, successful independent specialist franchised distributor of components for telematics and M2M, and director of customer solutions at Concirrus, home of the Internet of Things, tells us about the changing face of wireless technology.
When I first founded Alpha Micro Components in 1995 most of the solutions our customers developed for machine-to-machine communication were hard wired devices connected to conventional phone lines using low speed dial up modems. Some clients went on to adopt GSM cellular technology, a relatively expensive network at the time, to send information from one location to another. Now almost 20 years on the cost of cellular communication has dropped dramatically and 80% of the customers with whom we engage are developing products that are wireless. The challenge is no longer the cost of transmitting data from A to B as there is now a plethora of communication options open to electronic design engineers (with new networks such as SigFox to be launched in the UK later this year), the emphasis now is on making the most effective use of battery power in each device.
Over the past few years, we have witnessed mass migration to the cloud – a model for delivering information technology services in which resources are retrieved from the internet through web-based tools and applications. There are many factors that have influenced this development, but a key element is the availability of high speed broadband and a desire to have immediate access anytime anywhere to data and useful information. More and more businesses are using the cloud to enable seamless communication between their equipment and remote devices and so are becoming part of the Internet of Things revolution.
Wi-Fi is also omnipresent and has prompted the development of Smart Cities such as Bristol and Glasgow characterised and defined by a number of factors including sustainability, economic development and a high quality of life – factors that can be enhanced through infrastructure (physical capital), human capital, social capital and/or ICT infrastructure. London councils are currently in the closing stages of a procurement process to bring public Wi-Fi and mobile phone signal infill networks to public spaces across the capital. The scheme could see residents receive free Wi-Fi access using a system of transceivers attached to lampposts, bus shelters and other street furniture. Once the infrastructure is in place then it should be possible for tech savvy entrepreneurs to also use this network to roll out low cost sensor and services.
The Internet of Things (IOT)
The Internet of Things – a computing concept that describes a future where everyday physical objects are connected to the Internet and are able to identify themselves to other devices – is driving change. In March this year, Prime Minister David Cameron announced at Cebit that £54m worth of funding would be made available by the UK government to technology firms working on everyday devices that can communicate over the internet. “I see the internet of things as a huge transformative development – a way of boosting productivity, of keeping us healthier, making transport more efficient, reducing energy needs and tackling climate change,” he said.
With the arrival of the IOT, customers are looking increasingly to companies such as Concirrus to build complete solutions that connect remote devices directly to back office systems via the cloud. With IOT it is possible to fully automate every day processes such as the ordering, delivery and receipt of goods, if all the participants involved in that process are happy to share their data. For example, if a customer wishes to have oil for heating delivered to their house, the sensor in their oil tank can be programmed to notify the supplier when stocks run low, a message can be sent to the sensor on their electric gates to open them when the lorry arrives and an alert sent from the oil tank to the customer to let them know that the delivery has taken place and that the tank is now full.
A thirst for such technology has prompted the launch of Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing platform and infrastructure, created for building, deploying and managing applications and services through a global network of Microsoft-managed datacenters.
Yet IOT developments are very much in their infancy as such communication is reliant on the appropriate infrastructure being in place.
Mesh networks are also gaining momentum. On the consumer side we are seeing smart phones being used to create mesh networks in which each phone acts as a node for the relaying of data. What this means for the consumer is that if they want to send a text when coverage on their network is poor they can use the network of others in the vicinity to deliver their message. .
SigFox and Neul networks
Alongside Cellular – 2G, 3G and 4G which provide extensive coverage of the UK – we are seeing the emergence of other new players such as SigFox, a dedicated internet for machine- to-machine communication and Nuel, a technology that allows network operators to provide a scalable, low power network service to connect small low power devices to their online digital presence in the Cloud.
Low energy wireless solutions
More and more customers are selecting the wireless communication solution that best fits their application. The new kid on the block is Bluetooth Low Energy or Bluetooth LE, marketed as Bluetooth Smart – a wireless personal area network technology designed and marketed by the Bluetooth Special Interest Group used for asset tracking and in the healthcare, fitness, security, and home entertainment markets. Bluetooth is designed to operate over short distances so relies on the close proximity of sensors which can be positioned around the buildings in which such devices are located.
Tech togs or wearable technology is also making its debut – clothing and accessories such as Google Glasses – that incorporate computer and advanced electronic technologies. This has lead to a growth in e-health devices which can be used to monitor the health of patients and send alerts to the relevant authorities who can implement early intervention strategies, avert potential emergencies and so reduce the burden on the health service.
Alpha Micro and where we fit?
At Alpha Micro our strategy has been to build a broad portfolio of wireless devices and modules and to combine this with practical experience of how to make these work in the field. This has helped us to meet the needs of even the most demanding client requirements. We have long standing partnerships with:
· Ublox – leading providers of GPS/GNSS receiver modules
· AXSEM – world leading fabless semiconductor provider of cutting edge CMOS analog, digital and mixed-signal semiconductors mainly for the high-volume wireless communication market
· LPRS – low power radio solutions
· Laird – Bluetooth Low Energy solutions
· And GainSpan – who offers a broad portfolio of state-of the art low-power Wi-Fi and ZigBee/Wi-Fi chips, modules and software.
“The Internet of Things is changing the way our customers do business and Wireless technology is a key component in this transformation”, said Christos Papakyriacou. “At Alpha Micro, we are dedicated to staying ahead of the game and committed to having the right technology and partners in place to meet the needs of our customers as they migrate to the cloud.”