Human wireless nodes drive body-to-body networks

28 Oct 2010

Novel sensors carried by members of the public could form the backbone of an ultra high-bandwidth mobile internet infrastructure – and reduce the density of mobile phone base stations – thanks to a research project that has just got under way at Queen’s University Belfast’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT).

Body-to-body networks (BBNs) have many potential applications, from community healthcare and mobile gaming to live streaming of music and sports events, as the following example illustrates:

You are at a music festival and your friend is at the bar queueing for drinks. His favourite artist has just appeared on stage for an impromptu performance with some other celebrities.

You get out your smartphone and using BBN, you “stream” the jam session live to your friend in the drinks queue. The information stream consists of short packets of video data that are passed person to person and routed to your friend’s smartphone.

The other “bodies” at the concert all contribute a little of their energy and bandwidth to achieve this but this does not require their explicit knowledge – the smartphone software looks after it.

The project’s concept is based on the little known but rapidly developing science of bodycentric communications. Applications include remote healthcare monitoring, where compact sensors implanted or worn on a patient’s body are used to transmit information about their condition wirelessly.

Now, Dr Simon Cotton of ECIT’s wireless communications research group has been awarded a prestigious five-year research fellowship by the Royal Academy of Engineering jointly with the Engineering and Physical Research Council (EPSRC) to examine how that technology can be harnessed to become part of everyday life.

One of the project’s key goals is to investigate how small sensors carried by members of the public – in next-generation smartphones, for example – could intercommunicate with each other and with others embedded in the surrounding infrastructure to create potentially vast body-to-body networks (BBNs).

BiTtorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol

The novel sensors would interact to transmit data to provide “anytime, anywhere” mobile network connectivity and they could pave the way for truly mobile cloud computing. They could also be configured to collaborate collectively in much the same way that the BiTtorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol allows the rapid transfer of huge amounts of information by distributing the huge computing power required across multiple users. This would enable the network to provide a range of ultra high bandwidth capabilities, such as the streaming of high-definition video to handheld devices.

The availability of BBNs could bring great social benefits. The quality of healthcare, for example, could be improved significantly through the use of body-worn sensors for the widespread, routine monitoring and treatment of illness away from medical centres. This could greatly reduce the current strain on health budgets and help make the UK Government’s vision of healthcare at home for the elderly a reality.

Other potential uses include precision monitoring of athletes, real-time tactical training in team sports and mobile gaming.

If the idea takes off, BBNs could also lead to a reduction in the number of base stations needed to service mobile phone users, particularly in areas of high population density. And they would also be more environmentally friendly as they have much lower power requirements than current networks.

International expert

An acknowledged international expert in this rapidly developing field, Cotton and his team have already worked with clients, such as the UK Ministry of Defence to develop futuristic communications systems incorporating arrays of highly specialised body-worn antennas that could help protect frontline troops.

Cotton, along with ECIT’s Prof William Scanlon – who holds the Queen’s Chair in Wireless Communications – have just been awarded one of the top international awards in their field by IEEE – the world’s largest professional association dedicated to advancing technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. The duo received the H A Wheeler Prize Paper Award – for a study on a wireless bodycentric radio system that could be used by the emergency services.

Cotton believes the benefits of integrating the bodycentric approach into mainstream communications technology would be enormous.

“In the past few years, a significant amount of research has been undertaken into antennas and systems designed to share information across the surface of the human body. However, little work has been done to address the next major challenge which is one of the last frontiers in wireless communication – how that information can be transferred efficiently to an off-body location.

“Our work involves collaborating with national and international academic, industrial and institutional experts to develop a range of models for wireless channels required for bodycentric communications. These will provide a basis for the development of the antennas, wireless devices and networking standards required to make BBNs a reality.

“Success in this field will not only bring major social benefits it could also bring significant commercial rewards for those involved. Even though the market for wearable wireless sensors is still in its infancy, it is expected to grow to more than 400 million devices annually by 2014,” adds Cotton.

The Wireless Communications Research Group is part of ECIT’s Digital Communications cluster. Its work is focused around physical layer, link layer and, more recently, cross-layer solutions for challenging applications that demand efficiency, performance and reliability.

Current projects are clustered around antennas and radiowave propagation for personal and vehicular communications, wireless networking protocol design and modelling, and low-power, low-cost radios. Applications range from RFID to wireless body area networks to wireless networked control to telemedicine, spanning UHF to mm-wave frequencies.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. The EPSRC invests more than £850m a year in research and post-graduate training to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years