WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
The future will contain lots of smart things and smart sensors – and they’ll all want to talk to one another.
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Researchers in the US have developed a low-cost way for passive sensors, like those you find in Internet of Things (IoT) devices, to support and communicate with one another at 5G speeds. And if you’re wondering why this is newsworthy it’s because it means that all of a sudden we have a way to create ultra-fast IoT networks that can communicate with one another at gigabit speeds – thereby making all manner of new high bandwidth IoT applications possible.
The breakthrough was made by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology (GATECH), Nokia Bell Labs, and Heriot-Watt University.
To achieve this and to overcome IoT’s traditionally feeble data speeds the team used a unique modulation approach in the 5G 24/28GHz bandwidth and demonstrated that these passive devices can transfer data safely and robustly from virtually any environment. The findings have been reported in Nature Electronics.
According to GATECH mmWave communications are considered ‘the last mile’ for broadband – such as the last mile from a communications tower near a farmers field to the IoT sensor on the farmers tractor, and so on… This spectrum band is also enables very large communication rates, as well as the ability to implement electrically large antenna arrays and enable on-demand beamforming capabilities. However, up until now such mmWave systems have depended on high-cost components and systems – but not any longer.
“Typically, it was simplicity versus cost. You could either do very simple things with one transistor or you need multiple transistors for more complex features, which made these systems very expensive,” said Emmanouil Tentzeris, Ken Byers Professor in Flexible Electronics in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Now we’ve enhanced the complexity, making it very powerful but very low cost, so we’re getting the best of both worlds.”
“Our breakthrough is being able to communicate over 5G [millimetre-Wave] frequencies without actually having a full mmWave radio transmitter – only a single mmWave transistor is needed along much lower frequency electronics, such as the ones found in cell phones or Wi-Fi devices. Lower operating frequency keeps the electronics’ power consumption and silicon cost low,” added first author Ioannis Kimionis. “Our work is scalable for any type of digital modulation and can be applied to any fixed or mobile device.”
The researchers are said to be the first to use a backscatter radio [passive sensors] for gigabit-data rate mmWave communications, while minimising the front-end complexity to a single high-frequency transistor. GATECH added that their breakthrough included the modulation as well as adding more intelligence to the signal that is driving the device.
“We kept the same RF front-end for scaling up the data rate without adding more transistors to our modulator, which makes it a scalable communicator,” Kimionis said in a statement.
The technology opens up a host of IoT 5G applications, including using 5G networks to provide wireless power to all manner of devices and gadgets, something that the team also recently demonstrated via a new material they made.
Tentzeris said additional applications for the backscatter technology could include ‘rugged’ high-speed personal area networks with zero-power wearable or implantable sensors for monitoring oxygen or glucose levels in the blood or cardiac or EEG functions; smart home sensors that monitor temperature, chemicals, gases, and humidity; and smart agricultural applications for detecting frost on crops, analysing soil nutrients, or tracking livestock. And that’s just the start.