Body-to-body networks could be the future of mobile communications

An example of the potential of body-to-body networks with live streaming of video at a concert

At a major sporting event I attended recently, it proved impossible to get a connection on a mobile network that was swamped as many of the 100,000 strong crowd attempted to contact friends and family. While the influx of calls was the result of a thrilling draw, it highlighted the weakness of overloaded communications networks that would struggle in the event of a disaster in a heavily populated area. A new system being developed by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast could turn this weakness into a strength by allowing members of the public carrying wearable sensors to form the backbone of new mobile Internet networks.

The system being investigated by engineers from Queen’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT) is similar to the mesh network “batphones” being developed by researchers in Australia and the new device-to-device wireless technology developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance. It would create new ultra high bandwidth mobile Internet infrastructures through the use of small sensors carried by members of the public in devices such as next generation smartphones. These sensors could communicate with each other, transmitting data to create potentially vast body-to-body networks (BBNs) to provide ‘anytime, anywhere’ mobile Internet connectivity.

Dr Simon Cotton, from ECIT’s wireless communications research group said: “In the past few years a significant amount of research has been undertaken into antennas and systems designed to share information across the surface of the human body. Until now, however, little work has been done to address the next major challenge which is one of the last frontiers in wireless communication – how that information can be transferred efficiently to an off-body location.

“The availability of body-to-body networks could bring great social benefits, including significant healthcare improvements through the use of bodyworn sensors for the widespread, routine monitoring and treatment of illness away from medical centers. This could greatly reduce the current strain on health budgets and help make the Government’s vision of healthcare at home for the elderly a reality.

“If the idea takes off, BBNs could also lead to a reduction in the number of base stations needed to service mobile phone users, particularly in areas of high population density. This could help to alleviate public perceptions of adverse health associated with current networks and be more environmentally friendly due to the much lower power levels required for operation.”

The technology could also be used to improve the performance of mobile gaming or for live streaming of music and sports events. One specific example put forward by the team (see main pic) would see someone streaming video of an act on stage at a concert to a friend who is doing what good friends do and standing in a queue to get some drinks. The information stream consisting of short packets of video data would be passed from person to person and routed to the queuing friend’s smartphone. While the other people at the concert relaying the information would all contribute a little of their device’s energy and bandwidth to achieve this, it would not require their explicit knowledge as the smartphone software would look after it.

The Queen’s University Belfast team is collaborating with a number of experts to develop a range of models for wireless channels required for body centric communications. The team is hoping this will provide the basis for the development of the antennas, wireless devices and networking standards required to make BBNs a reality.

“Success in this field will not only bring major social benefits it could also bring significant commercial rewards for those involved. Even though the market for wearable wireless sensors is still in its infancy, it is expected to grow to more than 400 million devices annually by 2014,” said Dr Cotton.

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