Way beyond wi-fi

The wireless network with a mile-wide range that the “internet of things” could be built on

August 31, 2013
August 31, 2013

Robotics engineer Taylor Alexander needed to lift a nuclear cooling tower off its foundation using 19 high-strength steel cables, and the Android app that was supposed to accomplish it, for which he’d just paid a developer $20,000, was essentially worthless. Undaunted and on deadline—the tower needed a new foundation, and delays meant millions of dollars in losses—he re-wrote the app himself. That’s when he discovered just how hard it is to connect to sensors via the standard long-distance industrial wireless protocol, known as Zigbee.

It took him months of hacking just to create a system that could send him a single number—which represented the strain on each of the cables—from the sensors he was using. Surely, he thought, there must be a better way. And that’s when he realized that the solution to his problem would also unlock the potential of what’s known as the “internet of things” (the idea that every object we own, no matter how mundane, is connected to the internet and can be monitored and manipulated via the internet, whether it’s a toaster, a lightbulb or your car).

The result is an in-the-works project called Flutter. It’s what Taylor calls a “second network”—an alternative to Wi-Fi that can cover 100 times as great an area, with a range of 3,200 feet, using relatively little power, and is either the future of the way that all our connected devices will talk to each other or a reasonable prototype for it.

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Flutter’s range is 3,200 feet in open air, but multiple Flutters can also cover even larger areas in a “mesh” network.(Flutter)

“We have Wi-Fi in our homes, but it’s not a good network for our things,” says Taylor. Wi-Fi was designed for applications that require fast connections, like streaming video, but it’s vulnerable to interference and has a limited range—often, not enough even to cover an entire house.

For applications with a very limited range—for example anything on your body that you might want to connect with your smartphone—Bluetooth, the wireless protocol used by keyboards and smart watches, is good enough. For industrial applications, the Zigbee standard has been in use for at least a decade. But there are two problems with Zigbee: the first is that, as Alexander discovered, it’s difficult to use. The second is that the Zigbee devices are not open source, which makes them difficult to integrate with the sort of projects that hardware startups might want to create.

Flutter’s nearest competitors, Spark Core and Electric Imp, both use Wi-Fi, which limits their usability to home-bound projects like adding your eggs to the internet of things and klaxons that tell you when your favorite Canadian hockey team has scored a goal. Flutter’s other differentiator is cost; a Flutter radio costs just $20, which still allows Taylor a healthy margin above the $6 in parts that comprise the Flutter.

Making Flutter cheap means that hobbyists can connect that many more devices—say, all the lights in a room, or temperature and moisture sensors in a greenhouse. No one is quite sure what the internet of things will lead to because the enabling technologies, including cheap wireless radios like Flutter, have yet to become widespread. The present day internet of things is a bit like where personal computers were around the time Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were showing off their Apple I at the Palo Alto home-brew computer club: It’s mostly hobbyists, with a few big corporations sniffing around the periphery.

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Flutter radios connect to tiny Arduino computers, which is the de facto control and processing system for many startup and open source hardware projects.(Flutter)

“I think the internet of things is not going to start with products, but projects,” says Taylor. His goal is to use the current crowd-funding effort for Flutter to pay for the coding of the software protocol that will run Flutter, since the microchips it uses are already available from manufacturers. The resulting software will allow Flutter to create a “mesh network,” which would allow individual Flutter radios to re-transmit data from any other Flutter radio that’s in range, potentially giving hobbyists or startups the ability to cover whole cities with networks of Flutter radios and their attached sensors.

Taylor’s ultimate goal is to create a system that answers the fundamental needs of all objects in the internet of things, including good range, low power consumption, and just enough speed to get the job done—up to 600 kilobits a second, or about 1/20th the speed of a typical home Wi-Fi connection. One reason for that slow speed is that lower-bandwidth signals, transmitted in the 915 Mhz range in which Flutter operates, travel further. These speeds are more than sufficient when the goal is transmitting sensor readings, which are typically very short strings of data.

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