Internet of Things
Finnish researchers have developed a system that allows each smart device to become a router, making it much cheaper and easier to maintain IoT networks iStock

Finnish wireless researchers have developed a communication protocol that could revolutionise the Internet of Things (IoT) by turning smart devices into routers so that each device can start its own network and route traffic.

Connectivity startup Wirepas has developed a system that can turn any smart "thing" into an autonomous, completely decentralised device network, which could transform IoT by making it cheaper and easier for any type of business, service provider or product manufacturer to create intelligent devices, maintain them and continue to grow their network once it has been deployed.

IoT and its problems

IoT refers to smart devices that send information wirelessly back to a computer server or smartphone app to help people make better decisions and keep tabs on machines and monitoring sensors, even if they are located in hard-to-reach places or in harsh weather conditions.

Smart devices can either be existing products that have been given wireless capability, like a smart kettle or fridge, or a completely new device that just functions to monitor its environment.

The idea is that data sent back from these devices can help people prevent problems and better use their resources, such as figuring out when roads are most congested and public carparks are most popular; working out when to stop heating the home to save money; or detecting problems on remote oil rigs in the middle of the ocean.

Currently, it is difficult to easily expand and grow existing networks of smart things that are already out in the field, such as sensors embedded deep in the ground in concrete carparks, and it is even harder to maintain the network and make sure that the devices continue to work reliably.

To fix this, Tampere University of Technology in Finland spent a decade researching how to make it possible to wirelessly connect an unlimited number of battery-powered devices, and their solution was spun off into Wirepas in 2010.

"We're decoupling hardware and the software protocol, which has never been done before. You don't need any infrastructure or repeaters because each device can take the role of routing traffic from the others. That is disruptive. Every device in the network is a router and on the fly, the system decides which device in the network [will act as] the router," Wirepas' chief executive Teppo Hemiä told IBTimes UK at the Slush 2016 tech conference in Helsinki.

"Traditionally you need to have a network management function in a cloud or local server, somewhere centralised and this has the intelligence to solve problems that arise. On top of that, in a traditional network you have designated roles on different hardware so you need network infrastructure, but with our way, all you need are the devices as they are all able to deliver messages to their neighbours and in essence, form the network."

A network of devices that works the way nature does

Apart from not needing infrastructure or someone to configure your network of smart devices, Wirepas says its solution is also ground-breaking because the memory stored on the device is even smaller than that required in a Bluetooth protocol stack, which is what small devices like selfie sticks and wireless headphones use to communicate with smartphones and computers.

And because each smart device can also act as a router, you only need each device to connect to the device that is nearest to it, so then you don't need to install routers or rent rooftops in the city to set up base stations in order to route traffic back to the internet so the data can be sent to your smartphone app.

The firm claims that its technology is 99.9% reliable – a much higher figure than mobile networks can achieve – it can ensure that smart devices connect and send data even from deep underground basements, engine rooms or electricity rooms in industrial buildings because it also makes use of multi-hopping, which is a type of wireless technology that keeps relaying data from one device to another until it eventually reaches an internet gateway. This is similar to the way nature organises itself.

Rival technologies like Bluetooth and Zigbee can do this too, but they cannot easily be scaled up, so this wouldn't work if you needed a really huge network of connected devices.

No need to pay for infrastructure or network maintenance

"Other IoT systems use star topology, whereby the device has to connect to the base station [to get to the internet], but in our system, any device can connect to the nearest device, and in that way, much higher reliability and scalability can be achieved because there are more options for the devices to deliver the data," said Hemiä.

In a recent trial of the technology in Norway with two million e-meters, Wirepas calculated that if each device has a lifetime of 15 years, the one-time royalty fee it charges would work out to be a monthly connectivity cost of less than €0.05 per device.

Wirepas is currently working with radio module manufacturers like U-blox and Telit, as well as systems integrators, telcos and OEMS like SK Telecom and Capgemini to licence its software for IoT systems, and it feels that the interest has a lot to do with the affordability of the technology.

"We operate on a non-licensed spectrum and we have a one-time royalty fee per device taken into use. There are players who charge network as a service fee, but that element is totally missing as the device brings the network. This has a huge impact on lifetime operating cost, as you don't have that monthly fee," said Hemiä.