• This event recently hosted by Glasgow (Scotland) is the most important worldwide in the field of power line communications
  • The method proposed allows the setting up of narrowband communications networks that are more reliable and more secure than conventional ones

A scientific paper by the Basque R&D centres IK4-IKERLAN and CEIT-IK4/TECNUN together with the prestigious American Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which proposes a method to improve communications over electrical power networks, has been recognised as best paper submitted at the IEEE International Symposium on Power Line Communications and its Applications (IEEE-ISPLC 2014). This event, which was held in Glasgow (Scotland) recently, is the most important worldwide devoted to power line communications.

Many of the devices and machines we use every day at home or in industry are connected to the electrical power supply grid. In some cases these grids are used to transmit data which allows the existing power lines to be made use of. But given the fact that these grids are not designed for this use, communication is significantly degraded and this turns them into a means that is neither particularly robust nor efficient.

The research work that received the award proposes a method to create a narrowband communications network (in other words, a network with a limited transmission capacity) that is considerably more reliable and securer than conventional ones when it comes to handling problematic data transmission scenarios. This allows new services with dependability requirements in the communications (associated with people’s safety, for example) to be deployed, or the capacities of applications requiring connections between devices to be improved without needing the deployment of new dedicated power lines or communications infrastructure.

There is a broad range of applications that could take advantage of the advances made. They include home automation systems (surveillance and intelligent home management systems, etc.), smart city components, systems embedded in transport (reducing of wiring in vehicles, aircraft and shipbuilding, etc.), management of components in fields like healthcare, energy or water, and smart light and gas meters.

The award-winning paper proposes making use of power lines used for powering devices so that devices can be connected up with each other. “Each machine would act as a node in the network, and if one node fails to receive part of the information correctly, it could be rapidly completed with information that would be provided by the other machines via cooperative mechanisms,” explained Josu Bilbao, IK4-IKERLAN researcher and leader of the study.

What the authors are proposing for this is a system of communications based on an innovative technique based on Network Coding that would surpass the theoretical limits that can be reached by classical communications setups.

As he pointed out, “more and more applications are calling for robust communications networks". “Right now, when one machine tries to exchange information with another and there is a problem in communication, the first one has to resend all the information, and this process has to be repeated as many times as necessary until the second machine receives it,” he added. “What we are seeking to do is to design new methods that will allow the robustness and efficiency of communications to be increased while cutting the cost of its deployment,” he concluded.

Given that the classical method is not as efficient and reliable as one would wish, finding ways of improving the communication systems in problematic scenarios is posing a major challenge for the scientific community. “Making use of the electrical power lines already deployed is an option of growing interest,” said Bilbao. What is more, the method developed by the IK4-IKERLAN, CEIT-IK4/TECNUN and MIT researchers offers more security than the conventional type against possible attacks because the information is encrypted.

Right now, this method for improving communications via power lines has been tested in low voltage electrical power networks. However, the researchers are exploring the possibility of applying it in other fields, as well as the interest of various companies in using these communications mechanisms experimentally.

Communication via power lines

The use of power lines as a communications network means that the huge deployment of the mains power network can be taken advantage of. That is why it offers a very interesting solution wherever the deployment of a new network infrastructure (as in old buildings) poses complications, or in environments in which the use of wireless systems is not feasible (due to the long distances to be covered, the level of interference or the type of construction).

What is posing a problem in making use of these networks, however, is that because they are not designed for data communication but for energy supply, the transmission is not completely reliable and efficient. Improving these aspects would allow data transmission by means of power lines to become a useful, economic alternative in industrial as well as in transport and home applications.

About collaboration with the MIT

“At IK4-IKERLAN we have been collaborating with the MIT for some time on research into robust communications in order to apply theoretical concepts to real deployments, in particular in the field of embedded systems,” stressed Bilbao. “It is a centre enjoying worldwide prestige, so collaborating with leading people on an international level in this field is tremendously enriching for our capabilities in this area."

About the symposium

The IEEE International Symposium on Power Line Communications and its Applications (IEEE-ISPLC 2014) is the top forum worldwide devoted to power line communications. It is organised by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an international body of technicians and engineers devoted to standardising and disseminating new technologies.

The authors Josu Bilbao, Aitor Calvo, Igor Armendariz (IK4-IKERLAN), Pedro Crespo (CEIT-IK4/TECNUN) and Muriel Médard (MIT) received the 'Best Paper Award' for their work entitled 'Reliable Communications with Network Coding in narrowband Powerline Channel' in the latest edition of this event, held recently in Glasgow (Scotland).

A joint piece of work by these organisations has been recognised as best scientific paper at the IEEE-ISPLC 2014 international symposium
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