Narrowband Goes Broad

Seems LoRa is really taking off. Citing data from research firm Analysys Mason, Chris Donkin writes that 85 new networks were announced as live, in a trial phase or in development in 2016 compared with 29 in 2015.

While early LPWA deployments were concentrated in the US and Western Europe, Analysys Mason found interest in the technology spread during 2016, with strong traction being seen in the APAC market.

During 2015, two thirds of initiatives took place in the US and Western Europe whereas in 2016 the figure was down to less than a third. Simultaneously APAC showed growth from 4 per cent in 2015 to 30 per cent in 2016.

The report identified developments in Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand as being especially significant in the regional shift identified last year.
– via Mobile World Live

While a lot of these led by SigFox or operators using the NB-IoT standard — a stripped down 3G, more interesting, I think is the LoRa version, which actually provided the single largest group — 29 deployments vs 27 Sigfox.

The LoRa Alliance says 17 nationwide deployments have been publicly announced, and there are live networks in more than 150 cities. So I’m guessing AM’s numbers are somewhat conservative. The Things Network, an open source implementation of LoRa, boasts dozens of communities — people who are working on networks, however small — and while most are in Europe and the US, Australia is strong — Sydney’s Meshed Network Pty has installed five gateways around the city.

The author of the AM piece, Aris Xylouris, says “we can expect more announcements to be made before Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017. It is likely that the launch of the first real commercial deployment of an NB-IoT network will be among the announcements at MWC 2017.”

Here’s my take from August on narrowband.

2017 Predictions

This piece was written for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily.

This year is going to be an interesting one, but in technology it’s going to be particularly so. Social media is going to see some reverses, as users start to wake up to the compromises they make in sharing information with companies, governments and the world. But the real progress is going to be making our machines understand us better, in ways that we want.

Artificial intelligence: you’re no doubt rolling your eyes at the phrase, given how many times this technology has been promised as being around the next corner. I’m with you. But I think the focus has been on the wrong place: voice. Apple’s Siri has not been a huge success — except for my daughter, who loves talking to an adult she can be rude to — and Amazon’s Alexa, though impressive, is going to confine itself to those places where we feel comfortable talking to machines: the home.

That makes it inherently limited. Ours is actually a largely text-based world — we still use email, we prefer to text, or Whatsapp our friends, and this is where AI is going to be most useful. I already use an AI assistant called Evie to schedule my appointments; she parses emails I send her and, with a little human help, sets up meetings and calls on my behalf. I save an hour or so a week.

Expect to see more of this: using natural language – the way we usually write — to interact with devices, not via special apps but via whatever channels we already use. It’s our devices — fridges, computers, databases — that have to learn our language and preferred medium, not the other way around. AI will be a success if it can master this, and this year will be key.

Indeed, the same principle will be applied elsewhere: removing the machine-like elements of our interactions. AI will help us talk to machines better, but machines will also help immerse us in experiences. Pokemon Go, the mobile app that led many people astray catching and battling weird critters, was a hit because it took a decade-old technology, augmented reality, and bolted it onto something that people actually found useful. Well, not useful, exactly, but compelling.

Augmented reality took technology into the real world, and gave it an enticing layer. The next step — using technology to shrink the distance between people and the real world. Optimists are calling it teleportation — moving you to places you wouldn’t normally go, or can’t go. That could be a 360 degree video from a live event, or drones filming from way above you, or even experiencing something akin to physical touch with someone whose far away from you. A Singapore startup offers a remote kissing machine, which it of course has called the Kissenger.

Industry is getting excited about this because it sees the possibility of creating a digital twin of a real world device — a turbine say — and then manage and experiment on that digital version of the real thing. A Malaysian company does something similar with corpses — scanning the deceased so that post-mortems can be conducted digitally. The original body is left untouched — which may please relatives, but also means the number of post-mortems can be limitless, and performed by someone on the other side of the world.

All of this technology is available now, but it still takes some vision and money to bring it to market. But what people want is clear enough: technology should bring people closer to each other and their machines, but stay out of the way as much as possible. We may not successfully wean ourselves off our mobile screens any time soon, but we could at least make what we see, hear, and do on those screens as useful, exciting and human as possible.

PCs with Wireless Charging?

PCWorld reports of a Dell laptop with wireless charging, but it seems a low-key affair without much conviction:

At CES last week, Dell showed a wireless charging PC called the Latitude 7285, a 2-in-1 with a detachable screen attached to a keyboard base. It’s the first wireless charging laptop based on the AirFuel Alliance’s emerging wireless PC charging standard.

But Dell doesn’t have widespread plans to put wireless charging in a host of new devices. That’s partly because the technology, with slow charging speeds, is limited to low-power devices and isn’t mature enough to replace wired charging. The wireless charging Latitude 7285 has a low-power Intel Kaby Lake chip that draws just 4.5 watts of power.
– via PCWorld

You can see the problem. The whole point of wireless charging is that it works for smaller devices that you want to charge without having to fiddle with cables. It’s also a location thing: if you’re at your desk you’ve probably got a cable. But if you’re at your bedside, and want to charge your Kindle or phone overnight, just being able to put it on the nightstand and know it’s charging is elegant and appropriate.

So part of the problem here is companies foisting a ‘solution’ on a problem that doesn’t exist. The other is the continuing failure to agree on standards that work across all devices. Until that happens, don’t expect this to be a thing. As PC World says:

It hasn’t been smooth sailing for wireless PC charging. Intel had earlier taken the lead on establishing the wireless PC charging ecosystem. But the company scaled back efforts after laying off 12,000 people last year and restructuring operations to focus more on servers, internet of things, automotive tech, and other areas.

Intel was also leading an effort by AirFuel Alliance to establish the Resonant standard for wireless PC charging. AirFuel last November reconstituted a PC Task Force to drive adoption of wireless charging in PCs, with partners including Dell, Lenovo, and STMicroelectronics.

Intel also took on the job of trying to convince airports, cafes, and other locations to install wireless charging stands for laptops. But the efforts have not yet shown any tangible results.

Dog fight: Start-ups take aim at errant drones

Here’s a piece I wrote with Reuters colleague Swati Pandey about the rise of anti-drone technologies. Buckle up.

A boom in consumer drone sales has spawned a counter-industry of start-ups aiming to stop drones flying where they shouldn’t, by disabling them or knocking them out of the sky.

Dozens of start-up firms are developing techniques – from deploying birds of prey to firing gas through a bazooka – to take on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are being used to smuggle drugs, drop bombs, spy on enemy lines or buzz public spaces.

The arms race is fed in part by the slow pace of government regulation for drones.

In Australia, for example, different agencies regulate drones and counter-drone technologies. “There are potential privacy issues in operating remotely piloted aircraft, but the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s role is restricted to safety. Privacy is not in our remit,” the CASA told Reuters.

“There’s a bit of a fear factor here,” says Kyle Landry, an analyst at Lux Research. “The high volume of drones, plus regulations that can’t quite keep pace, equals a need for personal counter-drone technology.”

The consumer drone market is expected to be worth $5 billion by 2021, according to market researcher Tractica, with the average drone in the United States costing more than $500 and packing a range of features from high-definition cameras to built-in GPS, predicts NPD Group, a consultancy.

Australian authorities relaxed drone regulations in September, allowing anyone to fly drones weighing up to 2kg without training, insurance, registration or certification.

Elsewhere, millions of consumers can fly high-end devices – and so can drug traffickers, criminal gangs and insurgents.

Drones have been used to smuggle mobile phones, drugs and weapons into prisons, in one case triggering a riot. One U.S. prison governor has converted a bookshelf into an impromptu display of drones his officers have confiscated.

Armed groups in Iraq, Ukraine, Syria and Turkey are increasingly using off-the-shelf drones for reconnaissance or as improvised explosive devices, says Nic Jenzen-Jones, director of Armament Research Services, a consultancy on weapons.

A booby-trapped drone launched by Islamic State militants killed two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in October near Mosul.

The use of drones by such groups is likely to spread, says Jenzen-Jones. “There’s an understanding that the threat can migrate beyond existing conflict zones,” he told Reuters.

ANTI-DRONES

This is feeding demand for increasingly advanced technology to bring down or disable unwanted drones.

At one end of the scale, the Dutch national police recently bought several birds of prey from a start-up called Guard From Above to pluck unwanted drones from the sky, its CEO and founder Sjoerd Hoogendoorn said in an email.

Other approaches focus on netting drones, either via bigger drones or by guns firing a net and a parachute via compressed gas.

Some, like Germany’s DeDrone, take a less intrusive approach by using a combination of sensors – camera, acoustic, Wi-Fi signal detectors and radio frequency (RF) scanners – to passively monitor drones within designated areas.

Newer start-ups, however, are focusing on cracking the radio wireless protocols used to control a drone’s direction and payload to then take it over and block its video transmission.

Singapore’s TeleRadio Engineering uses RF signals in its SkyDroner device to track and control drones and a video feed to confirm targets visually.

DroneVision Inc of Taiwan, meanwhile, says it is the first to anticipate the frequency hopping many drones use. Founder Kason Shih says his anti-drone gun – resembling a rifle with two oversized barrels, coupled with a backpack – blocks the drone’s GPS signals and video transmission, forcing it back to where it took off via the drone’s own failsafe features.

VARIED CLIENTELE

Clients, the start-up companies say, range from intelligence agencies to hotels. DroneVision, for example, helped local police down 40 drones flying around Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings and a magnet for drone users, in a single day.

In the Middle East, upscale hotels are talking to at least two companies about blocking drones from taking shots of their celebrity guests longing poolside or in the privacy of their bathrooms.

And even while the military, Jenzen-Jones says, may have the capability to bring down drones, demand is shifting to nimbler, more agile devices to cope with attacks using smaller off-the-shelf devices. “The key is looking for systems that are scalable, lightweight and easily deployable,” he said.

HEY, REGULATORS

The problem, such companies say, is that regulations on the use of drones – and about countering them – are still in their infancy. In countries like the United States and Australia, for example, drones are considered private property, and they can only be jammed by government agencies.

“Mitigation capabilities,” says Jonathan Hunter, CEO of Department 13, “are therefore limited.”

Oleg Vornik, chief financial officer of DroneShield, however, says: “This is expected to change shortly as governments start to recognise that critical infrastructure facilities such as airports need to be able to defend themselves against drones.”

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is testing various counter-drone technologies at several airports.

Interest in the space will only grow.

London will next year host the world’s first two conferences on counter-drone technologies, says Jenzen-Jones. But there will also likely be consolidation.

DroneShield’s Vornik says the company has counted 100 counter-drone start-ups, and is talking to more than a dozen of them as potential acquisition targets.

It’s too early, Vornik says, to see evidence of moves to get around anti-drone technology. But Amazon.com last month tested deliveries in the UK via drones, and published a patent describing how it might defend drones from threats, ranging from a bow and arrow to signal jammers.