Top Application Trends of 2011

Dec. 16, 2011
From the smart grid and wireless medical monitoring to energy harvesting and the increased use of smartphones, these applications will drive product and technology developments into the future.
1. With this iPhone-based WiFi spectrum analyzer and power meter, actual power output can be triggered, captured, and recorded for protocol verification or for troubleshooting wireless devices. Data is collected at rates to 12 MSamples/s.

Novel applications continue to push technology forward. Data converters, for example, operate at faster clock speeds to keep up with today's processing needs. The ever-expanding use of cellular networks for voice, data, and Internet access is creating an increased need for higher-order modulation formats and amplifiers with enhanced linearity in support of those formats. In the defense market, applications like radar are relying more on digital processing, while system integrators are seeking more power from transistors as they attempt to leave behind vacuum-tube technologies. New applications and opportunities are emerging, thanks to research and development in the millimeter-wave arena. All of these progressions are a result of trends like the increased information and data being transmitted over limited bandwidth, the "greening" of the power and cellular infrastructure, and the corresponding move toward energy harvesting.

There's An App For That

With such a variety of applications to serve, test and measurement solutions now come in an array of sizes and styles. Big-box test and measurement systems continue to control their share of the marketespecially given the need for systems that can handle wireless standards like Long Term Evolution (LTE) and LTE-Advanced (LTE-A). Yet systems based on the modular PXI standard also are becoming more popular for a variety of applications. In addition, Universal Serial Bus (USB)-based test and measurement systems, which hook up to a personal computer (PC) and use it as a control interface, are becoming more viable choices. And a third option is now emerging in the ubiquitous iPhone.

Saelig Co., Inc. for example, just introduced an iPhone-based WiFi spectrum analyzer and power meter (Fig. 1). Dubbed the WiPry-Combo, it is a dynamic power meter and spectrum-analyzer accessory for the iPad, iPod Touch, and iPhone. In Spectrum Analyzer mode, the WiPry-Combo offers a practical solution for identifying interference or open channels in the 2.4-GHz industrial, scientific, and medical (ISM) band or identifying unauthorized WiFi access points. Operating in the frequency range from 2.400 to 2.495 GHz, it measures signal levels from -40 to +20 dBm with 2-dB amplitude resolution and 1-MHz bandwidth resolution. The band sweep time is 200 ms.

In Dynamic Power Meter mode, the device becomes a 100-MHz-to-2.7-GHz RF-power-meter accessory that graphically displays RF power levels. The graphical interface instantly shows waveform amplitude with respect to time. The WiPry-Combo triggers, captures, and records actual power output levels with a touchscreen interface, which has a timescale that is adjustable between 2 s/div to 1 s/div. The signal-amplitude display spans -45 to +20 dBm with 2-dB resolution.

Stretching Bandwidth

The use of iPhones and other smart devices for everything from social networking to professional applications has raised data consumption dramatically. The resulting bandwidth congestion has inspired the telecommunications industry to ask governments across the globe for more spectrum. With the freeing of some former analog TV broadcast spectrum, now referred to as "white space," some new solutions for broadband wireless Internet have become available. Unfortunately, these solutions face potential problems including interference and the need to work with geolocation databases. As a result, they are still in "trial" mode.

2. A new digital healthcare solution will integrate biometric devices while delivering personalized care plans to people on devices like smartphones and tablets.

To help to move white-space efforts along in an organized manner, the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC's) Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) began a 45-day public trial for the Telcordia White Space Database earlier this month. That database calculates protected contours in the US in accordance with FCC-designated rules. It also provides a list of available channels that TV-band white-space devices can use based on their location. In addition to a system of checks and balances, which is provided through such databases, many believe that a standardized approach is key to the success of white-space technologies. This unified approach may come to fruition through the Weightless standard.

In the meantime, spectrum deals continue to be madealbeit far less frequently than spectrum was bought and sold during the wireless heyday of the 1990s. Earlier this month, for instance, Spectrum Co, LLCa joint venture between Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networksentered into an agreement by which Verizon Wireless will acquire its 122 Advanced Wireless Services spectrum licenses (covering 259 million POPs) for $3.6 billion.

Carriers also are dealing with higher-capacity and bad-service areas through the use of smaller cells, such as femtocells and picocells. According to Heavy Reading Components Insider, femtocell trends now fall into two categories: third-generation (3G) home femtocells and enterprise femtocells, which will cover public spaces and rural locations with second- (2G), third- (3G), and fourth-generation (4G) networks. Such solutions have been a natural fit for high-density areas, such as shopping centers, where carriers need to boost their capacity. For broader implementation, femtocells will have to easily integrate with the existing infrastructure, augmenting services like cable, DSL, and WiFi.

In addition to feeding the consumer data frenzy, such increased bandwidth will support the plethora of industrial applications that leverage wireless technologies. Chief among them are the smart grid and the medical segment. From the wireless hospital to remote monitoring, for example, medical applications are increasing on what seems like a daily basis. The tracking of medical equipment and hospital inventory, such as gurneys, has been done with RF-identification (RFID) tagging for some time at a number of hospitals. In addition, applications like remote monitoring are making healthcare easier and more comfortable for patients while reaching patients in more remote areas.

In the US, Verizon Wireless is developing a suite of digital healthcare solutions that encompass chronic care management, clinician productivity, and virtual care. Its digital care-management solution, which will focus on chronic care management, will leverage a cloud-based platform and connected medical devices from partners like Entra Health. The solution will be able to integrate biometric devices and deliver personalized care plans to people on their mobile devices. The virtual care solution from Verizon Wireless will leverage advances in 4G LTE technology by utilizing smartphones, tablets, and video technology (Fig. 2). The resulting tool will virtualize a healthcare visit, eliminating the need to physically visit a doctor's office for many routine consults.

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Connected Homes And Smarter Grids

With a combination of smart meters, wireless technology, sensors, and software, the smart grid allows utilities to accurately track power grids and cut back on energy use when the availability of electricity is stressed. In addition, consumers can gain insight into their power consumption and make more intelligent decisions about how they use energy. According to research from In-Stat, power-line is the international leader in smart-meter connectivity (i.e., connecting the meter back to the utility). Yet an increasing number of wireless solutions are being used including cellular, white space, and proprietary methods that use unlicensed spectrum and operate in a mesh configuration.

The US is following that trend. Telecommunications carriers, for example, have gone from being one of the potential sources of a communications backbone to partners (and even providers) of equipment and services. AT&T, for instance, now provides SmartSynch's suite of smart-grid products along with AT&T wireless data services on a single bill.

Specifically, AT&T provides two-way, smart-grid data communication between electric meters or routers and a utility's office. In addition, the SmartSynch SmartMeter monitors power usage while wirelessly communicating both day-to-day energy data and outage information back to the utility company. The SmartSynch GridRouter, which acts as a hub for smart-grid data, allows the utility companies to connect with any device over any network. Finally, AT&T provides software that allows the utilities to automatically monitor millions of electric meters on a single, easy-to-use tool.

Of course, more carrier- or technology-agnostic approaches are also being produced. Qualcomm, for example, has harnessed multimode technology for smart-grid communications. This approach enables grid devices to connect with many commercial wireless networksregardless of the underlying cellular technology. Access to multiple carrier networks helps electric utilities effectively increase the coverage, reliability, and lifetime of the smart-grid communications system. Furthermore, the freedom to work with multiple network operators without changing equipment or requiring truck rolls allows utilities flexibility in terms of cellular data plans and services.

Such flexibility also is useful for manufacturers looking to sell their wares to multiple markets. Although the UK's leading rollout of smart meters has been well documented, the US and many other countries are in the process of their rollouts. With the end of stimulus funding, however, In-Stat notes that US smart-meter deployments are expected to peak this year and then decrease. However, smart-meter deployments are expected to continue to grow worldwidethanks largely to China, which is expected to deploy 280 million smart meters by 2016.

New Sources Of Energy

With the rollouts of the smart grid, many solutions seek to power wireless sensors. Yet a large number of approaches and applications exist beyond wireless sensors (see sidebar, "Get A Feel For Energy Harvesting's Current Strongholds"). For example, "electronic skin" is increasingly being investigated to alter the appearance of surfaces both electronically and remotely. Examples include smart windows and electronic wall paper. To avoid higher energy bills for users, these solutions would rely on energy harvesting and wireless technologies.

A number of efforts are working toward the goal of transmitting electricity wirelessly. With regard to charging, the Wireless Power Consortium is making strides with its Qi standard. Qi allows devices to be charged just by placing them on any Qi charging surface without connecting cords or wires. The standard ensures wireless charging interoperability between any Qi-enabled device and Qi charger, regardless of manufacturer or brand.

Earlier this month, the first phase of the Okudake-Juden (Place and Charge) campaign added Qi wireless charging at more than 60 popular locations throughout Japan. It plans to expand to 126 Qi charging locations by the end of this month. NTT DOCOMO, Inc. installed Qi wireless charging stations at 60 convenient locations including airport lounges, salons, cinemas, and cafes.

A major inspiration behind wireless charging solutions also can be found in the electric vehicle, which is a major factor for consideration in the smart-grid "big picture" as well. Last month, Qualcomm announced the first Wireless Electric Vehicle Charging (WEVC) trial for London. The pre-commercial trial, which is expected to start in early 2012, will involve as many as 50 electric vehicles (EVs). The trial will use Qualcomm wireless inductive power transfer technology, which enables high-efficiency power transfer across a large air gap. To use it, the driver simply parks the vehicle in the usual way and the system automatically aligns for power transfermaking parking easier and charging hassle free. Those goals nicely represent the inspiration behind the other driving applications for 2011 and beyond. All of them seek to improve quality of life by providing better, more enhanced services while optimally using existing resources and cutting down on waste.

About the Author

Nancy Friedrich | Editor-in-Chief

Nancy Friedrich began her career in technical publishing in 1998. After a stint with sister publication Electronic Design as Chief Copy Editor, Nancy worked as Managing Editor of Embedded Systems Development. She then became a Technology Editor at Wireless Systems Design, an offshoot of Microwaves & RF. Nancy has called the microwave space “home” since 2005.

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