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Ant-sized chips may connect the 'Internet of Things'
Sept. 22, 2014
by Mark Ollig

Trillions of tiny radio chip sensors may someday be collecting information on all of Earth’s electronic devices.

Yes, this is quite the prophetic statement by yours truly.

We know of the Internet’s network; the many ways we connect to it, and obtain and share content.

Well folks, the infrastructure of the Internet is preparing to get a lot bigger.

An engineering team at Stanford University has designed and demonstrated an ant-sized model of a communications device to make the “Internet of Things,” or IoT, a reality.

A video I watched described IoT as being how the Internet will evolve from connecting with computers, cellphones, tablets, and smart devices, to also having interconnection with other devices – or things.

These include business and home appliances, transportation networks, healthcare, energy and utility monitoring systems, manufacturer’s plant machinery, and other parts of our infrastructure, such as light bulbs, and even our coffee machines.

Instead of remaining static, these devices will be able to communicate their condition, allowing decisions to be made to better utilize their function, and obtain beneficial information.

“We’ve figured out how to design a radio in which everything . . . all the functionality of the radio, is integrated on a single silicon chip,” said Amin Arbabian, primary designer, and assistant professor of Stanford’s department of electrical engineering.

These radio chips are the latest development in connecting wireless devices to the Internet.

This tiny radio chip, which is a few millimeters, or about 0.119 inches long, includes an antenna array. It will compute, execute, communicate, and carry out logical commands from any location on the planet – when connected to the infrastructure of the Internet.

These chips operate using low-power, ambient radio frequency (RF) waves, instead of a conventional power source.

The circuitry of their architecture allows them to harness the power of incoming signals, and communicate using the 24 and 60 gigahertz frequency bands to transmit and receive.

Since there is no battery needed, these chips would last for many years.

This reminds me of the crystal radio sets from the early days of amplitude modulated (AM) broadcast radio.

Those crystal sets needed no independent power source, as they operated over the energy received from radio waves in the air captured by the crystal set’s antenna.

Stanford said this device is energy efficient. “It gathers all the power it needs from the same electromagnetic waves that carry signals to its receiving antenna.”

Imagine having one of these chips connected to every electronic device.

These chips would communicate information about the specific device each one was connected to including its operational status, data results received from the device, its geographic location, its operating environment – and more.

It all boils down to having a radio chip responsive to commands, and to control and obtain information from the device they are connected to.

These tiny radio chips could be embedded directly into the electronic gadgets and devices as they were being made in the manufacturer’s facility, or individually installed onto existing devices.

Of course, today, some manufacturers are using radio-frequency identification (RFID) circuit board tags to identify specific products, and track their location as they are shipped to distribution points across the country.

I can see large warehouses with thousands of their stocked items implanted with ant-sized radio chips.

Identification and location of inventory could be viewed using a special Web program, as all of these inventoried items would be connected to the Internet of Things.

These radio chips can be economically mass-produced; it has been estimated to cost only pennies to make one.

So, how will each of these trillions of chips be able to uniquely identify themselves and the devices they are connected to?

When we want to communicate with an individual, we dial their unique 10-digit telephone number.

And, so it will be with these new chips connected to a device; each will have a unique “telephone number” or, in this case, a unique Internet Protocol (IP) address, for communicating with us, or whatever software program they are associated with.

My guess is these chips, and all others comprising the Internet of Things, will be using the IPv6 Internet protocol addressing system – and some sort of encryption for security.

As you know, IPv6 has enough capacity to provide unique IP addresses for a nearly unlimited number of devices.

And that number is 340 trillion, trillion, trillion unique IP addresses, which should be enough to last a long, long, long time.

Alright, it should actually last forever.

The future Internet of Things may be linked, in part, using Stanford’s new, silicon radio chip design.

“The next exponential growth in connectivity will be connecting objects together and giving us remote control through the Web,” said Arbabian.

Yes, indeed, I can see myself in the future; sitting at the kitchen table with my laptop computer, engaged in a conversation over a cup of coffee with my coffee machine.

Stanford University’s Amin Arbabian created a short video which can be viewed at http://tinyurl.com/lrs53z4.


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