Wireless communications, new opportunities for industry
Wire-free networks are more efficient and enable new products and services to be developed
Wires belong to the past: in all areas, communications are increasingly taking place without them. Unlike wired communications, wireless networks based on embedded systems deployed as intercommunicated nodes offer a whole host of advantages.
The most obvious one is that they require fewer materials, and both installation and maintenance are more straightforward, and these aspects have significant repercussions with respect to their price.
They also allow places that are difficult to access to be reached, and new information that was once inaccessible in such places can now be obtained. What is more, they offer the chance to develop novel features and to open up new channels of business.
Impact on sectors
Industrial wireless communications have applications in the railway, automotive, power generation and capital goods sectors as well as in all types of production plants.
The market is demanding products that are increasingly more ‘intelligent’. So they have to be capable of gathering, processing and offering key information, such as data on how they are functioning, and be capable of being handled in a remote, dependable and secure way. Products that are more efficient, equipped with more capabilities and which are able to comply with the established regulations are being increasingly sought after.
The advantages offered by wireless networks in this respect are numerous. But to replace the wire and be useful in sectors such as industry or transport, they need to be dependable, robust, and secure even in hostile environments.
It is in fact in environments such as industry or means of locomotion that have characteristics that make them tremendously hostile for networks of this type: distances, materials, vibrations or interference are a real challenge.
Embedded systems offering high dependability and security are a key tool when it comes to successfully resolving these problems; they will drive forward the popularising of wireless solutions and the opportunities arising out of them.
Industrial automation systems (consisting of a sensor, a control device and an actuator) have traditionally been deployed by means of architectures connected by wire. Thanks to the new technologies it is possible to set up wireless networks that allow elements to be fitted with sensors, such as train wheels or the head of a machine, for example; this is something that has been impossible to do until now.
The possibility of reaching hitherto inaccessible spots and thus obtain new data and capabilities is driving forwards servitization; this is a process that is turning out to be a true revolution in industrial activity thanks to which companies, apart from products, are offering more and more services related to them.
Wireless communication networks allow machines to be handled remotely and more and better data to be obtained on the way the devices to which they have been fitted are functioning; this allows the deployment of a whole range of services, such as maintenance, updates, repairs, remote management, charge per use, etc. to be made.
It is this enhanced ‘intelligence’ of devices that is in fact underpinning the connection between machines known as the “internet of things”, or what boils down to the same thing, a network of objects connected to each other via the Internet and capable of interacting. This trend is fast becoming widespread in everyday objects, devices and machines in the home and in the professional sphere.
As has been made clear, industry and the means of locomotion are hostile environments for wireless communications for various reasons. Each scenario has its own circumstances and these are rarely repeated. So there are no technological solutions that can be used for everything and which, at the same time, offer acceptable levels of dependability and safety.
In order to maximise the availability of the link, it is necessary to design robust communication systems adapted to the specific circumstances of each space.
To do this, technologies such as real-time, time-critical, security, network coding ones, cognitive radio and the design of digital-physical levels need to be developed; this will enable secure, high availability wireless systems (safety-critical) with adequate levels of security (focussing on privacy and the inviolability of communications) to be developed.
At IK4-IKERLAN we have been developing technologies of this type for companies and working on the so-called 'wireless industrial' technology for over seven years. We are capable of deploying the developments in an integral way including all the phases in the cycle: conception, design, development, verification plus functional and non-functional validation.
The line of Research into Embedded Systems offering high dependability and security has over recent years obtained 20 defences and papers at prestigious international congresses; we have had 12 articles published in leading journals and we have defended 5 PhD theses with international mention.
We have also established relations with leading institutions, such as the MIT, TTTech, the University of Edinburgh, IMEC and the University of Ilmenau, among others.
As regards intellectual property, we have registered the property of two key components: the particularising of an algorithm in Network Coding that offers a significant increase in the quality of service in the communications, and a wireless protocol optimised for use in industrial scenarios.
From the point of view of industrial transfer, we have promising activity with several of our customers and we are also exploring new opportunities for activity with companies nationally and internationally.