The “Short, Smart Play” in RF and Wireless Market

I’ve been asked to present next month at the Portland State University Business Accelerator on technologies which are key components of innovative RF/Wireless products. In attendance will be start-up companies which are in the brain storming mode for their next technology-driven project. Here’s a preview of what I’m considering, feel free to contact me with thoughts, comments, suggestions or if you’d like an invite.  “The short, smart play” focuses in on shorter range Personal Area Networking (PAN) and data transfer technologies.

The short range communications arena is really heating up and being driven by a couple fore-runner technologies: Bluetooth and Zigbee. I had planned to discuss Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and the related technologies Real Time Locating System (RTLS) and Near Field Communications (NFC) but with time constraints I find it better to focus on those that lend themselves most readily to being leveraged into start-up projects.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) recently approved version 3.0 +HS of the specification which includes utilizing 802.11 technology to get high-speed data transfer. I recently interviewed Mike Foley, Executive Director of the Bluetooth SIG for my upcoming article in EE Times and asked about the next step in the Bluetooth evolution.  According to Mike, “The next focus is to get the low power versions of the standard approved, this will enable many more, button-sized devices and enable more PAN applications”.

These steps spell huge growth for Bluetooth and companies are responding – Apple is said to be finally allowing Bluetooth music and file transfer in it’s upcoming iphone software version 3.0. With a highly adoptable chipset that allows high speed (up the 54 MB/sec available in 802.11) data transfer and a low power configuration, start-ups can leverage this into a wide variety of products; the differentiation will be in how cleverly they create software which takes advantage of the feature set, the RF front-end design for clear communication and the ease of the Graphical User Interface (GUI).

Zigbee is seeing rapid growth in the utility and industrial markets, especially with the fielding of “smart meters” by utility companies worldwide. Zigbee is a great, simple technology for low-speed data transfer, however there are some security problems which are multiplied as it gets adopted for use in “smart metering” applications. I’ve helped with the Wikipedia entry on this, here is a summarized definition: A smart meter is an advanced meter that identifies consumption in more detail than a conventional meter and communicates that information via some network back to the local utility for monitoring and billing purposes.

Billions of dollars are pouring into new technologies to connect in-home electrical devices such as programmable thermostats, energy displays, smart plugs, PCs, and renewable energy sources to the electrical grid. These smart grid connected devices, that make up the Home Area Network or “HAN” are one piece of the Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI).

The attacks that keep utility company network security folks up at night are: eavesdropping, spoofing, replay attacks and denial of service (DoS). This is the area of opportunity – developing security overlays for Zigbee, especially those for it’s two most vulnerable attacks: replay and DoS.  ZigBee attempts to avert replay attaks by having the networked devices maintain a count of incoming and outgoing messages, and reset these counters only when a new security key is created. However, a targeted attacker could trick out the counter, essentially sending a reset command. The bigger challenge is the DoS attacks. You may be more familiar with these from reading about or witnessing websites which become unavailable due to this type of attack whereby the web host server is flooded with malicious incoming queries and unable to respond to legitimate connection requests. Now imagine this DoS attack shutting down your meter which triggers a shut-off of all electricity or gas to your home and you get the picture.

There are a number of fundamental tutorials available so I won’t spend a lot of time on that, neither in this post or during my presentation. What I will focus on are the advantages, current state of development and growing needs that can be addressed with innovative R&D.

Actually, I’ll post more on these in the future to give each of them their full due.

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