In 1992, Dr. Joseph Mitola proposed taking a "software intensive approach" to radio spectrum. Prior to this, spectrum allocation was viewed as "real estate" to be parceled out (or sold via auctions to the highest bidder), and radios operated on whatever frequency they were assigned.
But since the early 90s, software defined radio (SDR)—sometimes called cognitive radio (it's ALIVE!)—has automatically detected available spectrum and switched frequencies when needed. This will become increasingly important as more and more IoT devices come online; 20.4 billion by 2020, according to Gartner. Add to that the growth of military and commercial drones, wearables, and medical equipment, and you can see why some analysts predict SDR will be worth $29 billion by 2021.
To help us unpick the future of smart radio, PCMag met up with Professor Linda Doyle, Professor of Engineering and The Arts in Trinity College Dublin before she gave her keynote speech at the recent DARPA SDR Hackfest event in Silicon Valley.
Alongside her professorial duties, Dr. Doyle is also Director of CONNECT, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications, and a member of the National Broadband Steering Committee (Ireland) and Ofcom Spectrum Advisory Board (UK).
"Software radio, when it first took off, promised much," said Dr. Doyle. "While the vision of a world of dynamic spectrum access that often accompanied those promises has not been fully realized, we are in a world where spectrum sharing is more accepted. But I want the powers that be, in the communications world, most especially in the cellular world, to be significantly challenged as we move now towards dense small cells—on city buildings and other infrastructure, the softwareization of the network, more opportunities for spectrum sharing, and new industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) bands, which make it possible for a radical new way forward."
Dr. Doyle isn't keen on the term "cognitive radio" to describe the state of intelligent-style radio today.
"As a idea, 'cognitive radio' just means a radio with a brain, which allows it to do planned and unplanned things, by drawing on clever machine intelligence, A.I. or other protocols. But I've just gone off the term itself," she said. "In fact, at Trinity, we have a Department of Ultimology, which focuses on academic fields of research that are dying, and I feel we need to let go of concept of 'cognitive radio' as it now feels blended into managing spectrum in a smarter way, rather than something that needs to be drawn attention to as a concept."
In her speech at DARPA, Professor Doyle also talked about the birth of the dynamic access world, when managing spectrum—previously seen as scarcity—was now getting smarter. "If you look at LTE there are loads of aspects which could function as radio with a brain but they're not implemented as such; parts or hooks therein which intelligence could be controlling, but isn't," she told PCMag.
Coming from an academic background, with advisory positions in regulatory bodies and commercial companies, Professor Doyle takes an informed look at how the powerful wireless carriers have somewhat stalled the process of software defined radio: "They didn't really want it to happen," she pointed out, "And they pretended to go along with it to keep everyone happy."
However, as Dr. Doyle pointed out at DARPA, the real pressure will come from emerging IoT players.
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"IoT is where you'll need constant intelligence in the network to gather data and predict outcomes," said Dr. Doyle. "There are many innovations happening daily. For example, there's an Irish IoT company called Moocall, which uses sensors on cows that send text alerts to farmers when they're ready to calve. We'll see many, many more of these types of services coming onboard soon."
At CONNECT, Professor Doyle's team of 200 researchers, working alongside 40 companies, investigates the field of intelligence-based radio across all types of networks including: Low Energy (deploying scalable spectrum access solutions to support a massive numbers of devices), Shared, Dense (enabling massive capacity), Converged (malleable merging of optical, wireless and data to improve performance), Moving (infrastructure on the move, including V2V and UAVs) and, lastly, Nano, or networks of minute scale.
"These can be within the fabric of materials, or at the molecular level within the body," explained Dr. Doyle. "Our Nano networks research at CONNECT will seek to understand properties of materials, or biological functions, which can be leveraged and controlled to act as nano networks."
None of these networks would exist without intelligence at the software defined radio end, as they need the ability to switch between and modify behavior depending on spectrum availability and the type of service required in real time. But the proof of efficacy will be in the operation.
"In academia you can build a lot in the labs but you really need to push things out into the wild and test them inside the commercial arena," said Dr. Doyle. "So that's what we're doing at Connect's Pervasive Nation, creating a nationwide IoT testbed, a permissions-based network which will enable lots and lots of small messages, such as low-powered batteries which will last a long time so you can deploy and forget, mostly based on Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) Networks."
To further this work, Trinity College Dublin recently became the first Irish university to join the LoRa Alliance, an international, open, non-profit organization encouraging the rapid development and deployment of IoT.
"They've proposed LoRaWAN as the open global standard for secure, carrier-grade IoT LPWA connectivity," said Dr. Doyle. "So we're particularly interested in the capabilities and potential of their technology as we develop solutions for smart cities, smart agriculture, health and so on."
If you want to learn more about LPWA and the potential for software defined radio within forthcoming IoT networks, the LoRA Alliance will be presenting at LPWA Americas in San Jose, CA, Dec 5-6.
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