Smart People - The Future of Mobile Communication
William Scanlon’s interest in communication has been lifelong. ‘When I was primary school age, I used to sit in my granny’s kitchen fiddling with ham radios, building little electronic circuits, trying to write clever code for my own microcomputer, that type of thing.’
He has been on a long professional journey since then. Now he holds a Professorship at Queen’s and is Director of Research into Digital Communications at the University’s Institute of Electronics, Communications and Information Technology (ECIT).
As a student, he obtained his PhD on the subject of wearable antennas. ‘If you want to put an electronic medical device on the body you can’t have an aerial sticking out so you have to miniaturise it and you have to take account of the fact that human body tissue has properties which distort electromagnetic waves. That’s what this work was all about.
‘One of the things I pioneered during that research was the concept of medical implant telemetry – sending signals to and from devices inside the body – using UHF radio. With these high frequencies you can send more data.’
And that concept is still driving his research today. In a project with colleague Dr Simon Cotton he is looking at how to satisfy the modern demand for high rate data communication for people on the move. His solution – a body-to-body network that would function over a short range and use high frequencies. As they see it, this would make an important social impact - complementing and extending existing infrastructure networks by supporting network capacity, improving data rates and promoting green spectrum usage.
Funding for the research has come from EPSRC, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Leverhulme Trust – the latter two specifically for Dr Cotton’s work.
Professor Scanlon says, ‘You hear of the rise of the smart phone, the tablet. You hear the cry – we’re going to run out of mobile data, we’re going to run out of spectrum. This is a way to address that issue.
‘If you think about it, a man with a walkie-talkie is a form of body-to-body communication but here we’re not talking about a device which you hold but a device that you wear or one that you’re not explicitly using.’
He envisages this new form of ‘smart’ device being worn on the body or integrated into clothing, creating a generation of ‘smart people.’
‘Cities are where this is needed most. We’re calling this a co-operative body-to-body network, in effect using people themselves, using their movements over short ranges to increase the amount of data. You can really achieve any-time, anywhere connectivity. In fact, I also have a grant from the Ministry of Defence to work on a soldier-to-soldier network and the security advantages there are obvious.
‘But to give a very localised, social example. If you go to the Odyssey to see Lady Gaga and you take a picture with your mobile to send to a friend, you currently have to upload it to the network in order to send it. With our concept, you just send it person-to-person. We become our own base stations.’
He sees huge potential applications in areas like sport, too. ‘If you take a team sport like rugby, we’re experimenting with devices being embedded in the shirts in a project with Imperial College. The coach can stand at the side of the pitch with a tablet device, watch and analyse the game, and later show players where their movements went wrong or whatever.
‘Teams of cyclists can also take advantage. With these built-in devices they can sense each other’s fatigue levels and respond accordingly.’
This person-to-person localisation work has led to an ECIT spin-out company, ACT Wireless Ltd, in which Professor Scanlon and Dr Cotton are key figures. ‘We’re commercialising the technology in different ways - looking at tracking patients through A&E, time and motion in a factory, health and safety on an oil rig, student attendance at a university – there are many applications.
‘We do the science here at ECIT, but in a way that is clearly linked to a commercial need and we have the mechanisms here for spinning out new companies.’
Professor Scanlon is now a world-renowned figure in next-generation communications and in Spring 2012 gave a series of NATO lectures in Finland, Norway and Canada.
He says, ‘I give a talk with a title which sums up what I believe – You are at the centre of your wireless future. There is no doubt about it. The future of communications is personal.’