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Connecting the parts of a communicating world

The internet of things is a crucial area for the Connect Research Centre

The Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)-funded Connect Research Centre is working on solutions for a world where almost everything is connected. Headquartered in Trinity College, the centre's mission is to research, develop and innovate solutions to the communication challenges facing society. New broadband architectures, new cellular technologies and the internet of things are at the centre of its work.

The centre has received initial funding of €50 million from SFI and industry, which are contributing €11 million and supporting 165 researchers. Many of the challenges the 165 Connect researchers aim to address are related to ageing societies, the environment, energy and pollution, the intensification of agriculture, and mass entertainment. "Whether it's connecting small simple things or big complex things, we need new ways of rolling out responsive and flexible networks and Connect exists to develop these new connections", says Connect director Prof Linda Doyle.

"We aim to be a one-stop-shop for research into networks and communications in Ireland.

“The way we look at it is that everyone depends on networks for communications, GPS signals, entertainment, and so on; they are part of the critical infrastructure of our lives and more and more services are networked now. If you turn off the internet now everything grinds to a halt.”


Network infrastructure

Doyle points out that the internet is taken for granted despite its importance to our lives. "People are unaware of the strain there is on networks. More and more devices are being connected and demand is increasing all the time. Everyone knows how texts on New Year can be held up or how it can be difficult to get a connection in Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day. It's like the M50 at rush hour. That's what's happening behind the scenes but the problem is that networks are invisible things."

And they are growing. “We are not only talking about networks of people now,” she explains. “We now have things like smart agriculture, connected health, smart cities and so on. Everything from X-ray machines to cows is connected. This presents a whole new set of hurdles and challenges to be overcome. There are seven billion people in the world and there is an average of seven connected things per person – that’s 50 billion things and it’s growing all the time.”

Connect’s job is to look into the future and understand the increasing strains and demands on networks. “How do we design networks to cope with future demand?” she asks. “We need to design for the internet of things and for 5G networks. We are on 4G at the moment which is very much about connecting people but 5G is about digitising and connecting the world around us. They are talking about things like ‘industry 4.0’ and looking at new business models where the networks of the future will not be owned and operated the same as they are now.”

This new ownership model takes a bit of thinking about. It is not just that we will roam from network to network wherever we are to get the strongest signals and connections but that everyone can be a virtual network provider and services and resources will be shared in ways that we can’t really even imagine now.

Sharing economy

"They are talking about a sharing economy," Doyle explains. "Companies will be sharing infrastructure like base stations and they will be sharing radio spectrum as well. It will be kind of like Netflix. Users are sharing a whole load of resources without realising it."

This will give rise to concepts like the tactile internet. “Take an airbag in a car, for example,” says Doyle. “If it is connected to the internet you can’t wait for it to send and receive message after a car crash. You need an instantaneous response. The tactile internet will respond in human time. These are the sort of things we are working on.”

The centre combines bespoke research carried out with its 35 industry partners, which include Google, Intel, IBM and several Irish SMEs, and fundamental research. "We work closely with industry as well as on blue-skies research – it's a great mix."

That research looks to very distant horizons. “When we look at the future world, everything will have a radio and a sensor on it; we look at this as a complete end-to-end network. The team at Tyndall, one of our academic partners, is focused on making sensors that you can deploy and forget. These will be small, cheap and low-powered and their batteries will last almost forever.”

Sensors like these can be used for a range of applications including environmental monitoring or river water and air quality. They can be deployed in remote locations. The sensors will constantly send back data to a central location providing instant alerts whenever anything might go amiss, at a fraction of the cost of current systems.

For these things to work, however, there has to be a network to connect to, and existing mobile networks are not necessarily the right ones for these low-powered sensors. This is where another initiative, Pervasive Nation, being run by the Connect Centre comes in.

This will see the creation of an island-wide telecommunications infrastructure dedicated to the internet of things. Pervasive Nation will span urban, suburban and rural Ireland, supporting research and commercial activities and will be the first of its kind anywhere. This will allow new internet of things concepts, business models and devices to be developed and tested here in Ireland. The network is being rolled out across 10 third-level campuses initially, and will eventually cover urban, suburban and rural environments, making Ireland the first country in the world with full, internet of things network coverage.

“This is going to allow us to test the future here in Ireland,” says Doyle. “It will be a great mix of urban and rural, and we have good access to spectrum because of the regulator. It will be an open network and we want organisations – government departments and agencies, academic institutions, large companies and SMEs – to use it to test the next generation of internet of things. What we need to make it work is for as many of these organisations as possible to come and use it.”

Low-powered sensors

The network will use Lora (low-powered radio) technology to make it particularly suited to low-powered sensors. “The overall solution for the future will be a mix of different network types and this will be part of it.”

One potential use of the Pervasive Nation network will be flood monitoring, says Doyle.

“By deploying sensors at different points along a river you will be better able to predict floods and what actions need to be taken to prevent them. But this is not just about Ireland, we are involved in 20 different European projects – leading five of them. We also have relationships with American research institutes. It is great to be able to say that this country can stand toe to toe with the very best internationally.”