Body-to-body networks could be future of mobile internet

2 min read

The future ultra-high-bandwidth mobile internet infrastructure could rely on signals being passed from person to person through novel sensors, according to a wireless communications expert from Queen’s University Belfast.

Dr Simon Cotton from the wireless communications research group at Queen’s University is leading a five-year £550,000 project, sponsored by the Royal Academy of Engineering and EPSRC, aimed at modelling how signals could propagate from one person to another through sensors either worn on the body or in a mobile phone.

Once the results of the research are published next year,  he said, it will provide a ‘foundation stone’ for wireless systems designers wishing to develop enabling technology.

Cotton believes that body-to-body networks (BBNs) will create a new paradigm for mobile communications.

‘We’re going from person to person as opposed to going from mobile phone to base station back down to another person,’ he said.

If the idea takes off, BBNs could lead to a reduction in the number of base stations needed to service mobile phone users, particularly in areas of high population density.

Cotton added that BBNs would also reduce mobile power consumption because signals will not have to travel as far.

‘I think a mobile handset in the 900MHz peak power will be maybe 2W,’ he said. ‘So if you’re only transmitting to someone tens or hundreds of metres away you may only need 1 milliwatt. It’s pretty substantial.’

Cotton estimates that it could take five to 10 years for this kind of mobile communications infrastructure to take off. He admitted that it will require some convincing.

‘The mobile network providers might not be too keen on this; on the fact that if I am using some proprietary wireless technology to transmit from person to person, I might not always be using the base station and they might not be able to bill me for it,’ he said. ‘So I guess it’s going to be controversial.’

Cotton hopes that the industry will see some of the greater social benefits of the availability of BBNs. The quality of healthcare, for example, could be improved significantly through the use of bodyworn sensors for the widespread, routine monitoring and treatment of illness away from medical centres.

This could hopefully reduce the current strain on health budgets and help make healthcare at home for the elderly a reality.

Other potential uses include precision monitoring of athletes, real-time tactical training in team sports and mobile gaming.

Cotton and his team have already worked with clients such as the UK Ministry of Defence to develop futuristic communications systems incorporating arrays of highly specialised body-worn antennas for frontline troops. He believes that the ability to send data from soldier to soldier could help locate troops when GPS is not an option.  

‘You don’t need a dedicated infrastructure network to do that, which you might not always have in combat situations,’ he said.

Cotton, who has been working in this research area since 2004, described BBNs as the ‘new frontier of wireless communications.’

‘It’s only in the last six to 10 years that people have actually started thinking “hang on, we can actually put these wireless devices directly on the human body”,’ he said. ‘There are so many exciting applications. It’s a very exciting emerging area and it’s a good place to be at.’