Gartner expects 4.9 billion connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices in 2015. “New, novel devices, and many ordinary objects are being reinvented with digital sensing, computing, and communications capabilities,” mentions the 2014 Gartner press release. “This functionality provides both new and previously passive objects with a ‘digital voice,’ and the ability to create and deliver an information stream reflecting their status and that of their surrounding environment.”

Now imagine all 4.9 billion IoT devices exercising their “digital voice” using Ethernet cables — if that is even possible.

What kinds of wireless are we talking about?

As with many concepts steeped in technology, simplifying terminology happens over time. Wireless technology is no different. Marketing has distilled the many wireless technologies available to those building IoT devices to just wireless. However, that is not the case for the scientists and engineers trying to determine which communication method makes the most sense for their product.

Some of the more popular choices are:

  • Wi-Fi technology: Based on the IEEE 802.11 standard, Wi-Fi added mobility to IEEE 802.3 Ethernet products. Arguably, Wi-Fi has become the de facto network/internet connection method.
  • Bluetooth technology: A technology invented by Ericsson in 1994, and named after Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson, an ancient Scandinavian king. Bluetooth was originally IEEE 802.15.1 but came under the auspices of Bluetooth SIG.
  • ZigBee technology: ZigBee is named after a bee communications method where bees, returning to the hive, perform a Waggle Dance (video) to tell other bees where to find food. The bee-technology connection is that ZigBee wireless hops from node to node as it progresses through the wireless network.
  • 6LoWPAN technology: IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Networks is the first standard specifically developed for the IoT. The idea is to adapt the Internet Protocol communications suite to devices with limited processing and power capabilities.
  • Proprietary technology: Sometimes developers prefer to use proprietary systems to meet specific design criteria. These systems still communicate (link and physical layers) with standard transceivers, but require specialized devices to analyze the data.

Getting wireless right is critical

As alluded to in the 6LoWPAN description, getting wireless to work properly (i.e., maintain communications in a variety of environments) via small, battery-powered devices with limited processing capability is not trivial, and often neither the test equipment nor the Radio Frequency (RF) engineering expertise is found in-house.

A group of individuals in North Carolina’s Research Triangle recognized the need for this expertise back in 2011, and decided to fill the gap by providing wireless design, development, and regulatory help to local and global businesses.

I am referring to the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina (WRCNC) a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “The center was conceived to support the wireless industry in three traditional sectors: defense, telecom, and medical,” says Dr. Gerard Hayes, president and founder of WRCNC. “WRCNC customers now span many market segments including retail, entertainment, smart homes, energy, health-care, transportation, sustainable cities, and education.”

WRCNC’s capabilities

I connected with Randle Sherian, operations manager at WRCNC over the phone, asking him to describe WRCNC. “WRCNC is unique. There are other wireless-testing facilities, but we do much more,” explained Sherian. “I would consider WRCNC a wireless facilitator. We offer both engineering and business services to support the commercialization of wireless products from initial concept through high-volume production.”

Some testing capabilities offered by WRCNC include:

  • Pre-compliance testing and guidance for regulatory requirements (FCC, CE, etc.) and industry standards (CTIA, IEC, and IEEE)
  • Portable test equipment to help set up wireless networks, including 3 -106′ portable towers, with on-board 10 Kw diesel generators, multiple antenna mount capability, and 4′ x 2′ NEMA secure enclosure with 19′ racking
  • Satimo SG-64 anechoic chamber (Figure A) that can test active and passive wireless devices from 400 MHz to 18 GHz
  • Single-axis anechoic chamber that can support the investigation and troubleshooting of intentional and unintentional radiated emissions

How WRCNC ensures wearables communicate reliably

IoT wearables require special consideration when it comes to wireless communications. The human body affects, sometimes adversely, RF signal transmission. To help WRCNC ensure wearables communicate reliably, Sherian introduced me to POPEYE, an anatomically correct posable full-body phantom from SPEAG, a developer and manufacturer of tools and instrumentation for the evaluation of electromagnetic near- and far-fields.

The Foundation for Research on Information Technologies in Society (IT’IS) in Zurich, Switzerland in partnership with WRCNC are now testing and validating a POPEYE in WRCNC’s anechoic chamber. “We believe the relationship with the WRCNC allows us to be proactive in understanding the challenges of testing these devices, and more importantly, better understanding the performance of these devices across multiple markets segments,” states Dr. Niels Kuster, director of the IT’IS Foundation and professor at ETH Zurich.

Here’s hoping IoT manufacturers use it

The avalanche has started, and hopefully IoT development companies will use R&D facilities like WRCNC rather than letting paying customers do their product testing.

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