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Qualcomm's ultralow power tech targets body area networks

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"Body area network" sounds like something from a 1970s sci-fi movie, but is actually the subject of serious R&D by major players.

Biosensors that collect and wirelessly transmit data from human bodies have clear applications in healthcare and other areas, but the need for ultralow power is even more of a challenge than in machine integrated sensors. Qualcomm has been particularly active in addressing this aspect, coming up with new algorithms last year which are now included in an ultralow power network called Peanut, a potential challenger to Bluetooth and ZigBee in the home, industrial and even body monitoring markets.

Although Qualcomm shut down its LifeComm unit, for managed healthcare services, last year, it remains heavily focused on applications such as homebased health monitoring and medical networks – which would use the company's silicon and its managed services platforms. It has a health and life sciences unit to invest in next generation technologies, and some more commercial activities like its machine-to-machine joint venture with Verizon Wireless, nPhase.

Meanwhile, the market for ultralow power wireless technologies, for short range networks, is overcrowded, but has not addressed the health sector optimally, so Qualcomm is creating yet another contender to go alongside Bluetooth, ZigBee, UltraWideBand and ZWave. This one is less about personal area networks than pushing power levels even lower, eventually targeting the body area network. The firm says the sector needs to discover its own optimized approaches rather than shoehorning existing technologies for BANs. "Bluetooth and Zigbee were designed for other purposes, and now people are trying to use them for healthcare," engineer Harinath Garudadri said last year.

The firm's SVP of R&D, Matt Grob, said Peanut could be used over distances from a few inches to the length of a room. "It would require fractions of a milliwatt of power but move data at high speed," he told the EmTech@MIT 2010 conference. Those speeds would be a “few Mbps” for data, voice and audio, and it could probably handle video too.

The Peanut radio has been under development at Qualcomm for four years, and needs another year to be commercially ready. Since it has lower power consumption even than the new low power Bluetooth standard (which uses the WiBree system developed at Nokia) it could be applied to a range of new uses. Target markets include industrial control ZigBee's stronghold, but promising to support emerging M2M functions that need to transmit more data than current systems, while preserving long battery life. Monitoring devices would also be important, and fall into the healthcare market in which Qualcomm has taken such an interest in recent years. This would take it into the realm of body area networks, which rely on tiny monitors and sensors attached to the user, or eventually even embedded in them.

Grob also described an application for the automotive industry devices for reducing driver distraction by creating a wireless network surrounding a driver, but not the passengers. This would prevent the driver being diverted by calls or engaging in texting.

This is another element in a broader effort. Last year, Qualcomm's healthcare R&D team came up with a Compressed Sensing algorithm, an application layer technique that reduces the amount of data acquired and sent via a BAN. It has applied the technology successfully to blood pressure and heart rate sensors.

While sensing of a body's vital signs must be carried out 24/7, Garudadri told the meeting that a Harvard University study, CodeBlue, had discovered that up to 50 per cent of transmitted packets are lost on multihop networks. "This is not acceptable in life and death situations," he told EETimes.

Qualcomm researchers believe they can show a path to lowering power consumption on sensors down to tens of microamps. In ECG sensors, which collect rich data that cannot be randomly sampled, it also has an approach to lowering power precoding the signals to achieve 99 per cent accuracy even with 20 per cent packet loss.

Qualcomm will be cheered by news that the US FCC will consider allocating licensed spectrum for medical BANs, to enable wireless monitoring of hospital patients. GE Healthcare asked the FCC in 2008 to set up rules for MBANs and wants spectrum in the 2360MHz to 2400MHz band for use by low power medical devices, replacing wired solutions to monitor vital signs, respiration and ECG readings. GE is developing prototypes of the new wireless sensors and says licensed spectrum is needed to protect from interference from Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Copyright © 2010, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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