iMinds investigates stable, reliable wireless network performance in challenging IoT environments

Today’s wired networks provide stable, very high-speed network connectivity. Yet, they are cumbersome to deploy and inflexible to change. Wireless networks, on the other hand, can be rolled out nearly anywhere and be (re)configured easily – while supporting an ever-evolving and ever-growing ecosystem of devices. But wireless networks are less stable than their cabled counterparts – especially in industrial settings where signals can be obstructed.

And creating a stable wireless network connection is not the only challenge. For mission-critical IoT-services in particular (think of self-driving cars, for instance) network lag times must be negligible too.

The combined need for capacity, speed and real-time interaction puts a lot of pressure on network infrastructures – especially when potentially billions of devices will be talking to each other over the public Internet. And so the question arises: how can we prepare our networks for a dramatic increase in data traffic, avoiding that they get overburdened?

Every day, iMinds researchers are identifying and solving this type of technical challenges – across fundamental, applied and European research projects – so that the full potential of the Internet of Things can be unlocked.

We can’t be constantly redeploying cables and moving or adding access points. That takes time and money.

MoCo – allowing stacked containers to smoothly communicate with the outside world

iMinds’ Monitoring of Containers (MoCo) applied research project ran from April 2010 till March 2012, and investigated the design and implementation of a wireless network to monitor and track products stored in shipping containers while in transit. As part of this project, the team not only needed to develop sensors and transmitters of sufficiently low voltage to conserve battery power; they also had to deal with a very challenging physical environment. After all, containers on a ship are stacked: the ones in the middle are boxed in by steel on all sides, creating what’s called a Farraday cage – a shield that blocks electromagnetic signals like radio waves and wireless transmissions.

“One of the key research questions during this project was how to get information out – from the middle of the stacked containers up to a satellite,” says Prof. Dr. Ingrid Moerman from iMinds - IBCN - Ghent University, who coordinated the project’s research efforts. “The solution we came up with, uses some sort of ‘signal relay’: a container in the middle sends its signal to an adjacent container, which passes it along to the container beside it, and on and on until it reaches a node on the ship that can collect and transmit all data.”

FORWARD – preventing the obstruction of wireless signals in factories

iMinds’ FORWARD applied research project (which runs till December 2015) investigates how wireless solutions can make factories more intelligent, efficient and profitable – involving a use case at the Volvo car manufacturing plant in Ghent.

“Wireless communication is an essential enabler for the Internet of Things, allowing devices – such as the automated guided vehicles on our production floor – to constantly exchange information,” says Kris Van Cauwenberge, Volvo. “Yet, the ever-changing geography of our warehouses and production facilities makes the use of wireless networks highly impractical: wooden crates full of metal parts are often stacked up like walls, and move and change very often. That obviously has a severe impact on wireless coverage. Together with iMinds and the other FORWARD partners, we’re currently exploring the creation of a secure, reliable wireless infrastructure that can be installed once and maintained independently of the changes to the layout in the factory and our warehouses.”

iFEST – enabling real-time communication with IoT-sensors at mass events

“Mass events – such as music festivals or cycling events – feature massive amounts of digital bracelets, smartphones, LED-screens, wireless routers, etc. on a limited surface. As such, a setting with a lot of electromagnetic interference is created that is very hostile to wireless network technology. Moreover, most of the time these event locations do not have the structural communications infrastructure that is required to handle mass data traffic,” says Prof. Dr. Steven Latré, iMinds - MOSAIC - University of Antwerp. “As part of iMinds’ iFEST applied research project, we’re investigating new communication protocols and the creation of flexible wireless network models that support stable and real-time communication with large numbers of IoT devices at large-scale events.”

AGILE – the Port of Antwerp becomes a 'Harbour of Things'

A use-case within the broader European AGILE-project, Mobistar, iMinds and Rombit will be investigating from January 2016 onwards how the Port of Antwerp can better prepare itself for the future – using a combination of low-power sensors and drones to report on water and air quality, or flag the appearance of unexpected obstacles in the water. Concretely, a myriad of low-power sensors – with limited communications capacity – will constantly gather data on a number of parameters and relay that information to the drones hovering above them. Using the public 3G / 4G network, the drones will then make sure the data arrive at their destination.

Putting wireless networks to the test

iMinds has created a mobile test bed, enabling public and private sector research partners to gain greater understanding about reliability and scalability issues in their specific wireless network settings.

One particular example includes a collaboration with Airbus Group, which was developing a wireless cabin management system for its aircrafts. In order to come up with a good solution, the Airbus engineers needed to understand how the wireless signals propagate inside the plane – a complex and time consuming measurement, since aircrafts are not very accessible. Bringing a portable version of their mobile test bed, iMinds researchers were invited to set up their equipment in a mock-up of an Airbus cabin, and were able to conduct a lot of highly specialized measurements in a short timeframe – providing the Airbus engineers with valuable input.

A reconfigurable radio architecture that supports the rapid deployment of new IoT applications

Starting January 2015, iMinds researchers have started to coordinate a four-year strategic IWT research project called SAMURAI (Software Architecture and Modules for Unified Radio Control). While current network solutions often require proprietary radio developments to cope with the domain-specific requirements of niche markets, SAMURAI looks at limiting cost and development efforts for new wireless solutions and related IoT applications. It studies how we can move away from closed vertical solutions and evolve to open horizontal platforms that can be shared in multiple application domains.