What Is 5G and How Does It Work?

By: Daniel Tomlinson
Project Engineer

18th July 2019

5 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering

As a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on data driven applications, 5G promises to provide better connectivity and faster speeds for our network devices. However, whilst the previous generations of mobile communications have been fairly analogous to each other in terms of distribution and multiple user access, 5G will be drastically different – making it a challenging system to implement. So, how does it work?

Initial Concept

Enhanced Mobile, Massive iot, low latency, the 5G Triangle
Fig 1 – The 5G Triangle

 

As with any concept, 5G was initially based on a very broad and ambiguous set of standards, which promised low latency, speeds in the region of Gbps and better connectivity. Whilst no intricacies of the system were known at the time, we knew that in order to achieve faster data rates and larger bandwidths we would have to move to higher frequencies – and this is where the problem occurs. Due to the severe amounts of atmospheric attenuation that’s experienced by high frequency signals, range and power become serious issues that our current systems aren’t capable of handling.

Range & Power

A modern GSM tower features multiple cellular base stations, that together, are designed to transmit 360⁰ horizontally and at a range in the order of tens of miles, depending on the terrain. However, if you were to consider that the received power transmitted from a cellular base station degrades with distance at a rate of…

And that by factoring in frequency, this effect worsens…

…it becomes obvious that transmitting over larger distances and at higher frequencies becomes exponentially inefficient. Therefore, a key part of the 5G overhaul would require thousands of miniature base stations to be strategically placed in dense, urban environments in order to maximise capacity with minimal obstructions.

Directivity

5G Radiation pattern
Fig 2 – Radiation Pattern of an Isotropic Antenna versus an Antenna with Gain (Dipole)

 

One way to increase the range of a transceiver, whilst keeping the power output the same, is to incorporate gain into the antenna. This is achieved by focusing the transmitted power towards a particular point as opposed to equally in all directions (isotropic).

Figure 1 shows such a comparison, in which, a dipole antenna’s energy is being focused in the direction of 180 and 0 degrees. Equation three reflects this additional factor:

However, as the essence of a wireless handset is portability, it is likely to move around a lot with the user. Therefore, a high gain 5G transmitter would still require a tracking system to ensure that it stays focused directly at the end user’s handset.

User Tracking

One solution for tracking devices could be to employ a high frequency transceiver with a phased array antenna structure. This would act as a typical base station, capable of transmitting and receiving, but an array of hundreds of small scale patch antennas (and some DSP magic) would make it capable of beamforming. This would not only allow the structure to transmit high gain signals but to also steer the beam by changing the relative phase of the output.

However, as this is a technically complex system that has yet to be implemented on such a large scale, the technology is still in its infancy and is currently being trialled in select areas only. Considerable efforts will have to be made to ensure that such a transceiver could operate in a bustling environment where multipath and body-blocking would cause strong interference.

5G in 2019

3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project) is an organisation that was established in 1998 and helped to produce the original standards for 3G. It has since gone on to produce the specs for 4G, LTE and is currently working to achieve a 5G “ready system” in 2020.

With certain service carriers already having released 5G this year in certain parts of America, 2019 will be welcoming numerous 5G handsets from several of the flagships giants like Samsung, LG, Huawei and even Xiaomi – a budget smartphone manufacturer.

As with previous generations though, only limited coverage will be available at first (and at a hefty premium), but in practice, it will be fairly similar to Wi-Fi hot-spotting. A lot of work is still required to overcome the issues as discussed above.

As a society that is becoming increasingly dependent on data driven applications, 5G promises to provide better connectivity and faster speeds for our network devices. However, whilst the previous generations of mobile communications have been fairly analogous to each other in terms of distribution and multiple user access, 5G will be drastically different – making it a challenging system to implement. So, how does it work?

Initial Concept

Enhanced Mobile, Massive iot, low latency, the 5G Triangle
Fig 1 – The 5G Triangle

As with any concept, 5G was initially based on a very broad and ambiguous set of standards, which promised low latency, speeds in the region of Gbps and better connectivity. Whilst no intricacies of the system were known at the time, we knew that in order to achieve faster data rates and larger bandwidths we would have to move to higher frequencies – and this is where the problem occurs. Due to the severe amounts of atmospheric attenuation that’s experienced by high frequency signals, range and power become serious issues that our current systems aren’t capable of handling.

Range & Power

A modern GSM tower features multiple cellular base stations, that together, are designed to transmit 360⁰ horizontally and at a range in the order of tens of miles, depending on the terrain. However, if you were to consider that the received power transmitted from a cellular base station degrades with distance at a rate of…

And that by factoring in frequency, this effect worsens…

…it becomes obvious that transmitting over larger distances and at higher frequencies becomes exponentially inefficient. Therefore, a key part of the 5G overhaul would require thousands of miniature base stations to be strategically placed in dense, urban environments in order to maximise capacity with minimal obstructions.

Directivity

5G Radiation pattern
Fig 2 – Radiation Pattern of an Isotropic Antenna versus an Antenna with Gain (Dipole)

One way to increase the range of a transceiver, whilst keeping the power output the same, is to incorporate gain in to the antenna. This is achieved by focusing the transmitted power towards a particular point as opposed to equally in all directions (isotropic).

Figure 1 shows such a comparison, in which, a dipole antenna’s energy is being focused in the direction of 180 and 0 degrees. Equation three reflects this additional factor:

However, as the essence of a wireless handset is portability, it is likely to move around a lot with the user. Therefore, a high gain 5G transmitter would still require a tracking system to ensure that it stays focused directly at the end user’s handset.

User Tracking

One solution for tracking devices could be to employ a high frequency transceiver with a phased array antenna structure. This would act as a typical base station, capable of transmitting and receiving, but an array of hundreds of small scale patch antennas (and some DSP magic) would make it capable of beamforming. This would not only allow the structure to transmit high gain signals but to also steer the beam by changing the relative phase of the output.

However, as this is a technically complex system that has yet to be implemented on such a large scale, the technology is still in its infancy and is currently being trialled in select areas only. Considerable efforts will have to be made to ensure that such a transceiver could operate in a bustling environment where multipath and body-blocking would cause strong interference.

5G in 2019

3GPP (the 3rd Generation Partnership Project) is an organisation that was established in 1998 and helped to produce the original standards for 3G. It has since gone on to produce the specs for 4G, LTE and is currently working to achieve a 5G “ready system” in 2020.

With certain service carriers already having released 5G this year in certain parts of America, 2019 will be welcoming numerous 5G handsets from several of the flagships giants like Samsung, LG, Huawei and even Xiaomi – a budget smartphone manufacturer.

As with previous generations though, only limited coverage will be available at first (and at a hefty premium), but in practice, it will be fairly similar to Wi-Fi hot-spotting. A lot of work is still required to overcome the issues as discussed above.

Further Reading

Does your workplace identity matter?

By: Edwina Mullins
Head of Marketing

9th July 2019

5 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering

It’s hard to miss the corporate Pride activity in the last few weeks where companies have been showcasing their inclusion of people from the LGBTQ+ community. Last month I read a brilliant blog from Jen Hennings where she asks the question: “What 5 terms would you use to describe your identity?”

For me, I picked Human. Mum. Foodie. Arty. Country-loving. It was actually a harder process than I thought and I partially failed as I realised I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my career, the way I bring up my children, my purchasing decisions, and how to be a better version of myself. But I have never reflected on my actual identity – who I am not what I like.

I posed the same identity question to a few friends, and many were similar to me, with the exception of colour and religion additions: ‘Brown’ was one answer and ‘Christian’ was another. For Jen, her 5 words are Female. Queer. Butch. Athlete. Trans. There is an obvious point that if you identify yourself with a minority group or have struggled with your identity being accepted by a wider community, then it will be front of mind and you will have been forced to reflect on who you are as a person. I consider that as a relatively tough, white, straight, outgoing female I have been lucky not to receive too much discrimination during my career (apart from being hit on when younger and being asked to make the tea). And I haven’t had to analyse myself and put me in an identity box (others can do that for me).

Having children, however, has opened my eyes to more ideas about identity. My husband, Barry, and I have talked extensively about how we are going to bring up our children – both our base instincts on parenting and learned behaviour. When Barry held our son in the hospital for the first time, his immediate thought was “I’m going to have to teach this little thing to be a man”. Then later (when we’d got over the initial shock of being parents), he had to define what ‘man’ actually meant. Much of this was deciding what from our own childhoods was good/irrelevant/needed redefining.

Living in a box

Simplistically, I would love it if everyone didn’t put themselves or others in a box; people could just exist and co-exist. I don’t want to identify myself or be identified as a type – no one should care that I have Saxon heritage as supposed to any other heritage for example – I want to identify myself with the choices I have made in life, not what life has given me. And that is because I don’t have to struggle with being accepted.
It’s easy to only care about the things that directly affect us. Here are some quick stats from Jen’s blog, and things I didn’t particularly consider until I learned about them:

  • LGBTQ+ people in the UK weren’t legally protected from discrimination at work until 2003.
  • It wasn’t until 2007 that sexual orientation was written into the Equality Act.
  • It took until 2010 for gender reassignment to be added as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.
  • As of June 2019, the UK Law does not offer any provision for non-binary individuals.
  • According to research performed by UM (Universal McCann), up to 60% of UK graduates will go back into the closet when they enter the world of work.

I find the final stat particularly frustrating. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) identified that 16 – 24 year olds have a higher percentage of people who consider themselves gay/lesbian/bisexual than other age groups. With all the other stresses of starting your first job, your sexual orientation and how it will be accepted by others just shouldn’t be another worry in a perfect world. So at the moment, we HAVE to focus on the struggles and identity of LGBTQ+ people until what is considered ‘normal’ in every workplace changes to accept everyone. So what do we need to do? Yes acknowledge Pride Week, wear rainbow colours and put a post on LinkedIn. But all workplaces need a plan for the other 51 weeks of the year too.

In my perfect world, anyone can be who they like, and bonk who they like and it is just normal. This doesn’t take away the importance of who a person is or the choices they make, it’s about true acceptance. Perhaps in that world, we won’t need 5 words, we’ll just need to identify 1 word: Human.

It’s hard to miss the corporate Pride activity in the last few weeks where companies have been showcasing their inclusion of people from the LGBTQ+ community. Last month I read a brilliant blog from Jen Hennings where she asks the question: “What 5 terms would you use to describe your identity?”

For me, I picked Human. Mum. Foodie. Arty. Country-loving. It was actually a harder process than I thought and I partially failed as I realised I have spent a lot of time reflecting on my career, the way I bring up my children, my purchasing decisions, and how to be a better version of myself. But I have never reflected on my actual identity – who I am not what I like.

I posed the same identity question to a few friends, and many were similar to me, with the exception of colour and religion additions: ‘Brown’ was one answer and ‘Christian’ was another. For Jen, her 5 words are Female. Queer. Butch. Athlete. Trans. There is an obvious point that if you identify yourself with a minority group or have struggled with your identity being accepted by a wider community, then it will be front of mind and you will have been forced to reflect on who you are as a person. I consider that as a relatively tough, white, straight, outgoing female I have been lucky not to receive too much discrimination during my career (apart from being hit on when younger and being asked to make the tea). And I haven’t had to analyse myself and put me in an identity box (others can do that for me).

Having children, however, has opened my eyes to more ideas about identity. My husband, Barry, and I have talked extensively about how we are going to bring up our children – both our base instincts on parenting and learned behaviour. When Barry held our son in the hospital for the first time, his immediate thought was “I’m going to have to teach this little thing to be a man”. Then later (when we’d got over the initial shock of being parents), he had to define what ‘man’ actually meant. Much of this was deciding what from our own childhoods was good/irrelevant/needed redefining.

Living in a box

Simplistically, I would love it if everyone didn’t put themselves or others in a box; people could just exist and co-exist. I don’t want to identify myself or be identified as a type – no one should care that I have Saxon heritage as supposed to any other heritage for example – I want to identify myself with the choices I have made in life, not what life has given me. And that is because I don’t have to struggle with being accepted.

It’s easy to only care about the things that directly affect us. Here are some quick stats from Jen’s blog, and things I didn’t particularly consider until I learned about them:

  • LGBTQ+ people in the UK weren’t legally protected from discrimination at work until 2003.
  • It wasn’t until 2007 that sexual orientation was written into the Equality Act.
  • It took until 2010 for gender reassignment to be added as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act.
  • As of June 2019, the UK Law does not offer any provision for non-binary individuals.
  • According to research performed by UM (Universal McCann), up to 60% of UK graduates will go back into the closet when they enter the world of work.

I find the final stat particularly frustrating. The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) identified that 16 – 24 year olds have a higher percentage of people who consider themselves gay/lesbian/bisexual than other age groups. With all the other stresses of starting your first job, your sexual orientation and how it will be accepted by others just shouldn’t be another worry in a perfect world. So at the moment we HAVE to focus on the struggles and identity of LGBTQ+ people until what is considered ‘normal’ in every workplace changes to accept everyone. So what do we need to do? Yes acknowledge Pride Week, wear rainbow colours and put a post on LinkedIn. But all workplaces need a plan for the other 51 weeks of the year too.

In my perfect world, anyone can be who they like, and bonk who they like and it is just normal. This doesn’t take away the importance of who a person is or the choices they make, it’s about true acceptance. Perhaps in that world, we won’t need 5 words, we’ll just need to identify 1 word: Human.

The Virtue of Failure

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

25th June 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering

The Virtues of Failure

In order to innovate, we must accept the possibility of failure. Since the vast majority of inventions and ideas are doomed to fail, failure is inevitable, even for the most successful companies. And yet, businesses try to hide their mistakes in an attempt to appear perfect in the public eye. I started thinking about this when I heard about the Museum of Failure in Sweden, which exhibits the products invented by companies that their customer-base didn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t pay for.

Being ashamed of our mistakes may be a natural human behaviour, or it might be cultural, but there are times when it is advantageous to embrace failure.

Toyota’s Andon Cords

On Toyota’s factory floor, the cars are assembled on a conveyor belt, lined with employees assembling the cars bit-by-bit as they go past on the assembly line. Each employee on the assembly line has a big yellow button at arms-reach, which they are taught to push every time they detect a problem with the assembly. When pushed, the button alerts the rest of the team, bringing their attention to the issue immediately.

In earlier days of Toyota’s manufacturing, there were ropes hanging above the assembly line that served this function, called “Andon cords”. Pulling the cord halted the conveyor, bringing all work to a complete stop until the problem was solved. Although it might sound like a waste of time, it actually increased Toyota’s efficiency and the technique was adopted by other auto manufacturers.

Toyota keeps track of the number of times the button/cord is used each day. When the rate of alarms decreases it is considered a serious problem since it indicates the employees are not being observant enough.

“A stitch in time saves nine”

It’s much easier to solve problems when you to attend to them as early as possible. But to attend to problems, you have to acknowledge their existence, which sometimes means admitting to a mistake. If it’s your own mistake you’re likely to feel ashamed of it, and if it’s someone else’s mistake you may feel guilty about pointing it out and embarrassing them. That reaction is natural but somewhat irrational; we all make mistakes, and everyone knows that. It’s easy to forgive a mistake if you can catch it early, but it’s harder to forgive later when the damage is already done.

Product Design

In the world of product design, each new project is an opportunity to make many mistakes. The project itself might even be a mistake, as was the case for many exhibits in the Museum of Failure. As designers and engineers, it’s important, to be honest about our mistakes and the mistakes of our peers – even our superiors. Our projects might benefit greatly from a culture of forgiveness where we feel less ashamed of admitting to mistakes, or maybe even a culture like Toyota’s where detecting problems is encouraged and a lack of problems is looked on with suspicion.

The Virtues of Failure

In order to innovate, we must accept the possibility of failure. Since the vast majority of inventions and ideas are doomed to fail, failure is inevitable, even for the most successful companies. And yet, businesses try to hide their mistakes in an attempt to appear perfect in the public eye. I started thinking about this when I heard about the Museum of Failure in Sweden, which exhibits the products invented by companies that their customer-base didn’t want, and certainly wouldn’t pay for.

Being ashamed of our mistakes may be a natural human behaviour, or it might be cultural, but there are times when it is advantageous to embrace failure.

Toyota’s Andon Cords

On Toyota’s factory floor, the cars are assembled on a conveyor belt, lined with employees assembling the cars bit-by-bit as they go past on the assembly line. Each employee on the assembly line has a big yellow button at arms-reach, which they are taught to push every time they detect a problem with the assembly. When pushed, the button alerts the rest of the team, bringing their attention to the issue immediately.

In earlier days of Toyota’s manufacturing, there were ropes hanging above the assembly line that served this function, called “Andon cords”. Pulling the cord halted the conveyor, bringing all work to a complete stop until the problem was solved. Although it might sound like a waste of time, it actually increased Toyota’s efficiency and the technique was adopted by other auto manufacturers.

Toyota keeps track of the number of times the button/cord is used each day. When the rate of alarms decreases it is considered a serious problem since it indicates the employees are not being observant enough.

“A stitch in time saves nine”

It’s much easier to solve problems when you to attend to them as early as possible. But to attend to problems, you have to acknowledge their existence, which sometimes means admitting to a mistake. If it’s your own mistake you’re likely to feel ashamed of it, and if it’s someone else’s mistake you may feel guilty about pointing it out and embarrassing them. That reaction is natural but somewhat irrational; we all make mistakes, and everyone knows that. It’s easy to forgive a mistake if you can catch it early, but it’s harder to forgive later when the damage is already done.

Product Design

In the world of product design, each new project is an opportunity to make many mistakes. The project itself might even be a mistake, as was the case for many exhibits in the Museum of Failure. As designers and engineers, it’s important, to be honest about our mistakes and the mistakes of our peers – even our superiors. Our projects might benefit greatly from a culture of forgiveness where we feel less ashamed of admitting to mistakes, or maybe even a culture like Toyota’s where detecting problems is encouraged and a lack of problems is looked on with suspicion.

Generating innovative ideas

The use of Technology in Farming

By: Edson DaSilva
Project Engineer

11th June 2019

3 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering

The use of technology in farming is not a new subject, and over the years many have predicted that this technology or that gadget would revolutionise the industry, but that’s yet to happen. Make no mistake; farming now is significantly different from what it was like 20 years ago, and technology is widely used in the industry now. From the use of GPS Systems to automate machinery to the more recent adoption of drones for tasks such as crop surveying. However, the uptake has not been rapid and revolutionary, but rather a gradual and steady evolution. Some would argue that farmers are at fault, due to their resistance to progress and disinclination to try new technology. I struggle to buy into that. Whilst I can believe that this is true for a handful of individuals, innovators must take some responsibility too. I am persuaded that all too often those at the forefront of technological innovation fail to fully grasp the very real and relevant concerns expressed by prospective end-users. This in turn yields solutions that fail to meet the basic requirements needed for widespread uptake.

I recently attended two events which reinforced some those views, namely Drones for Farming Conference and Sensing for Economic & Production Gains in Agriculture. In particular, these two things that stayed with me looking back:

1. Data is only as valuable as the decisions it enables

In recent years we have become obsessed with data, the more the better some would argue. And with the spread of AI, this trend is set to continue. Whilst data can indeed be a very powerful tool, it needs to enable decision making for it to yield results. The following simple, but effective example illustrates this point. A drone that flies over a field and takes pictures of crops is of little use to a farmer. But if the pictures can be strategically taken such that an agronomist can inspect areas of a field that are not easily accessible it becomes more useful. Better still, if the software can use image recognition and data processing to advise the agronomist about potential diseases, at an early stage such that preventive action can be taken before it is too late, it becomes a very useful tool.

2. UAVs are not only for crops

One of the stories that really caught my attention was the use of a UAV to herd livestock. Wojtek Behnke, a farmer and tech enthusiast wanted to see if he could use UAVs to speed up the process of rounding up sheep. He started off by simply using the sound of the vehicle to steer the flock (similar to the fashion used with a sheepdog), and his initial results were impressive. But over time the flock became more and more accustomed to the sound, to the point where he could fly the vehicle within metres of them and they would not move. At this point, he switched his strategy and adopted a positive reinforcement behaviour approach. Instead of trying to scare the flock he started to persuade them to follow the UAV in the hope of gaining a reward, in this case, feed.
After a slow start, he managed to ‘teach’ the sheep to associate the sound of the UAV to food. The results were astonishing. He successfully ushered the flock through a number of difficult and tricky obstacles and into the desired location using only a UAV. Wojtek’s experience as a shepherd and his knowledge about the animal’s behaviour was vital in recognising the need to change the approaches.

As our population grows and our demand for food increases, there will have to be a paradigm shift in how food is produced. Affordability will continue to be a pressing demand, but sustainability is just as important, especially given the growing concerns about climate change. Technology will no doubt play a big part in it, but the size of its impact and the speed at which it happens will be dictated by how well technologist and producers collaborate.

The use of technology in farming is not a new subject, and over the years many have predicted that this technology or that gadget would revolutionise the industry, but that’s yet to happen. Make no mistake; farming now is significantly different from what it was like 20 years ago, and technology is widely used in the industry now. From the use of GPS Systems to automate machinery to the more recent adoption of drones for tasks such as crop surveying. However, the uptake has not been rapid and revolutionary, but rather a gradual and steady evolution. Some would argue that farmers are at fault, due to their resistance to progress and disinclination to try new technology. I struggle to buy into that. Whilst I can believe that this is true for a handful of individuals, innovators must take some responsibility too. I am persuaded that all too often those at the forefront of technological innovation fail to fully grasp the very real and relevant concerns expressed by prospective end-users. This in turn yields solutions that fail to meet the basic requirements needed for widespread uptake.

I recently attended two events which reinforced some those views, namely Drones for Farming Conference and Sensing for Economic & Production Gains in Agriculture. In particular, these two things that stayed with me looking back:

1. Data is only as valuable as the decisions it enables

In recent years we have become obsessed with data, the more the better some would argue. And with the spread of AI, this trend is set to continue. Whilst data can indeed be a very powerful tool, it needs to enable decision making for it to yield results. The following simple, but effective example illustrates this point. A drone that flies over a field and takes pictures of crops is of little use to a farmer. But if the pictures can be strategically taken such that an agronomist can inspect areas of a field that are not easily accessible it becomes more useful. Better still, if the software can use image recognition and data processing to advise the agronomist about potential diseases, at an early stage such that preventive action can be taken before it is too late, it becomes a very useful tool.

2. UAVs are not only for crops

One of the stories that really caught my attention was the use of a UAV to herd livestock. Wojtek Behnke, a farmer and tech enthusiast wanted to see if he could use UAVs to speed up the process of rounding up sheep. He started off by simply using the sound of the vehicle to steer the flock (similar to the fashion used with a sheepdog), and his initial results were impressive. But over time the flock became more and more accustomed to the sound, to the point where he could fly the vehicle within metres of them and they would not move. At this point, he switched his strategy and adopted a positive reinforcement behaviour approach. Instead of trying to scare the flock he started to persuade them to follow the UAV in the hope of gaining a reward, in this case, feed.

After a slow start, he managed to ‘teach’ the sheep to associate the sound of the UAV to food. The results were astonishing. He successfully ushered the flock through a number of difficult and tricky obstacles and into the desired location using only a UAV. Wojtek’s experience as a shepherd and his knowledge about the animal’s behaviour was vital in recognising the need to change the approaches.

As our population grows and our demand for food increases, there will have to be a paradigm shift in how food is produced. Affordability will continue to be a pressing demand, but sustainability is just as important, especially given the growing concerns about climate change. Technology will no doubt play a big part in it, but the size of its impact and the speed at which it happens will be dictated by how well technologist and producers collaborate.

How to Harvest Infinite Power!

By: Henry Wadsworth
Project Engineer

9th May 2019

6 minute read

Home » Insights » Engineering

Wouldn’t it be amazing if an electronic device could run forever, for free, on an unlimited supply of energy? No batteries to replace and no plug socket to be tethered to. This might seem like a flight of fancy, but with modern energy harvesting techniques, it is a much more realisable dream.

Energy harvesting is the capture and storage of energy from the environment which can be used to power an electronic device. This is not a new idea, we are all familiar with the idea of using solar panels to charge a battery, but there are many other energy sources to take advantage of such as kinetic, thermal, and electromagnetic energy. Kinetic energy such as that produced by wind can easily be harvested using a turbine, but even vibrations can be converted into a voltage using a piezo-electric transducer so any form of movement has the potential to power electronics. Thermal energy can be converted into electrical energy using a thermoelectric generator (TEG) which is able to produce energy from heat which would normally be lost to the environment. Electromagnetic energy is present all around us, for example, in the form of radio waves and microwaves which we rely on for wireless communications from WIFI to FM radio. In most circumstances this amount of energy is so small that it cannot readily be captured and stored, however, if a device is located within a reasonable distance of a powerful transmitter, it is possible to provide enough energy to keep a low-power device alive.

This is especially the case with modern integrated circuits designed for power harvesting which are enabling increasingly tiny amounts of energy to be gradually accumulated over time in a battery, or super-capacitor in order to power a low-power device almost indefinitely while the energy source is present. In many cases it is also possible to combine multiple energy harvesting sources, which can be useful in environments where the energy sources may be changing, such as if the device is moving through different environments. For example, solar could be combined with piezo-electric, so that the device can harvest sunlight when the sun is visible, and vibration energy when the device is being moved (perhaps the device is worn by a human, or transported on a vehicle).

Energy harvesting typically refers to small scale harvesting of energy as described above, however, larger power sources can also be harnessed. For example, the power flowing through a cable can be harnessed by placing a current transformer around the cable. We recently developed a system using this technology to supply energy in an underground environment where no other power supply was reliably available. This can be a useful way of retro-fitting a device where power cables already exist, but with no other convenient way to tap the energy from the cables. This method has the potential to supply large amounts of power to a device, depending on the amount of current flowing through the cables.

Energy harvesting is a particularly valuable technique for circumstances where it is not possible to carry out maintenance on a device to replace a battery. For example, the device may be inaccessible or just impractical and expensive to access if there are a large number of devices – which is likely to become an increasingly significant problem as inexpensive IOT devices are used for large monitoring networks.

Energy harvesting techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated which, coupled with a low power microprocessor makes it possible to power devices with energy sources which previously would be considered impractical.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if an electronic device could run forever, for free, on an unlimited supply of energy? No batteries to replace and no plug socket to be tethered to. This might seem like a flight of fancy, but with modern energy harvesting techniques, it is a much more realisable dream.

Energy harvesting is the capture and storage of energy from the environment which can be used to power an electronic device. This is not a new idea, we are all familiar with the idea of using solar panels to charge a battery, but there are many other energy sources to take advantage of such as kinetic, thermal, and electromagnetic energy. Kinetic energy such as that produced by wind can easily be harvested using a turbine, but even vibrations can be converted into a voltage using a piezo-electric transducer so any form of movement has the potential to power electronics. Thermal energy can be converted into electrical energy using a thermoelectric generator (TEG) which is able to produce energy from heat which would normally be lost to the environment. Electromagnetic energy is present all around us, for example, in the form of radio waves and microwaves which we rely on for wireless communications from WIFI to FM radio. In most circumstances this amount of energy is so small that it cannot readily be captured and stored, however, if a device is located within a reasonable distance of a powerful transmitter, it is possible to provide enough energy to keep a low-power device alive.

This is especially the case with modern integrated circuits designed for power harvesting which are enabling increasingly tiny amounts of energy to be gradually accumulated over time in a battery, or super-capacitor in order to power a low-power device almost indefinitely while the energy source is present. In many cases it is also possible to combine multiple energy harvesting sources, which can be useful in environments where the energy sources may be changing, such as if the device is moving through different environments. For example, solar could be combined with piezo-electric, so that the device can harvest sunlight when the sun is visible, and vibration energy when the device is being moved (perhaps the device is worn by a human, or transported on a vehicle).

Energy harvesting typically refers to small scale harvesting of energy as described above, however, larger power sources can also be harnessed. For example, the power flowing through a cable can be harnessed by placing a current transformer around the cable. We recently developed a system using this technology to supply energy in an underground environment where no other power supply was reliably available. This can be a useful way of retro-fitting a device where power cables already exist, but with no other convenient way to tap the energy from the cables. This method has the potential to supply large amounts of power to a device, depending on the amount of current flowing through the cables.

Energy harvesting is a particularly valuable technique for circumstances where it is not possible to carry out maintenance on a device to replace a battery. For example, the device may be inaccessible or just impractical and expensive to access if there are a large number of devices – which is likely to become an increasingly significant problem as inexpensive IOT devices are used for large monitoring networks.

Energy harvesting techniques are becoming increasingly sophisticated which, coupled with a low power microprocessor makes it possible to power devices with energy sources which previously would be considered impractical.