Passive WiFi On Microwatts

A lot of you use WiFi for your Internet of Things devices, but that pretty much rules out a battery-powered deployment because WiFi devices use a lot of juice. Until now. Researchers at the University of Washington have developed a passive WiFi implementation that uses only microwatts per device.

Working essentially like backscatter RFID tags do, each node has a WiFi antenna that can be switched to either reflect or absorb 2.4 GHz radiation. Your cell phone, or any other WiFi device, responds to this backscattered signal. All that’s missing is a nice steady signal to reflect.

passive_wifi-shot0008A single, plugged-in unit provides this carrier wave for multiple WiFi sensor nodes. And here’s the very clever part of the research: to keep the carrier from overwhelming the tiny modulated signal that’s coming from the devices, the plugged-in unit transmits off the desired frequency and the battery-powered units modulate that at just the right difference frequency so that the resulting (mixed) frequency is in the desired WiFi band.

If you’re a radio freak, you’ll recognize the WiFi node’s action being just like a frequency mixer. That’s what the researchers (slightly mysteriously) refer to as the splitting of the analog transmission stage from the digital. The plugged-in unit transmits the carrier, and the low-power nodes do the mixing. It’s like a traditional radio transmitter, but distributed. Very cool.

There’s a bunch more details to making this system work with consumer WiFi, as you’d imagine. The powered stations are responsible for insuring that there’s no collision, for instance. All of these details are very nicely explained in this paper (PDF). If you’re interested in doing something similar, you absolutely need to give it a read. This idea will surely work at lower frequencies, and we’re trying to think of a reason to use this distributed transmitter idea for our own purposes.

And in case you think that all of this RFID stuff is “not a hack”, we’ll remind you that (near-field) RFID tags have been made with just an ATtiny or with discrete logic chips. The remotely-powered backscatter idea expands the universe of applications.

Thanks [Ivan] for the tip!

Continue reading “Passive WiFi On Microwatts”

Samsung ARTIK Dev Boards Start To Ship

Another week’s news, another single board computer aimed at Internet of Things applications is launched. This time it’s Samsung’s Artik 5, a platform they’ve been talking about for a while now but which you can now buy as a dev board from Digi-Key for $99.99. For that you get Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Zigbee connectivity, a dual-core ARM Cortex A7 running at 1GHz, 512MB of memory, and 4GB of eMMC storage. There are the usual plethora of interfaces: GPIO, I2C, SPI, UART, SDIO, USB 2.0, JTAG, and analogue.

The single board computer marketplace is starting to look rather crowded, and with so many competitors to choose from at more reasonable prices you might ask yourself why the ARTIK could be of interest to a maker. And given that Samsung are positioning it in their literature on its increased security for use in commercial  applications such as IoT hubs, IP cameras and industrial and commercial lighting systems, you’d probably be on to something. If you were to make a very rough analogy with the Raspberry Pi range this has more in common with the Compute Module when it comes to intended marketplace than it does with the Pi Zero.

One answer to that question though could be that it is one of the first devices to support the Thread networking protocol for IoT devices. Thread is a collaboration between Google and a range of other interested parties that has been designed to deliver reliable and secure mesh networking for IoT devices in connected homes. As with all new connectivity protocols only time will tell whether Thread is the Next Big Thing, but it is interesting to note in this board nevertheless.

The ARTIK hasn’t made many waves as yet, though we covered the story when it was announced last year. It is worth mentioning that the ARTIK 5 is only the first of three platforms, the ARTIK 1 will be a tiny board with Bluetooth LE aimed at portable and wearable applications while the ARTIK 10 will be an octo-core powerhouse aimed at mulitmedia processing and network storage applications.