With the technological advancements that humans have been able to achieve till date, it comes as little disappointing that until now we haven't been able to invent a way through which we can control all types of devices, wirelessly, via the Internet. This was mainly because till now the world hadn't seen a two-way radio that was smart and small enough to make this scenario possible. But, all this might change soon, all thanks to a new technology on the block called HitchHike.

It is not a surprise anymore that the "Internet of Things" hasn't been able to hit the sixer out of the park yet, and still largely remains a player from whom we expected a lot but it is just surviving by hitting lowly singles. In order for the IoT to become a real success, it needs a new class of extremely energy-efficient, tiny WiFi radios that can easily pass commands to and from the network to a myriad of devices.

This is the very thing that has inspired HitchHike. Conceived by a Stanford University research team led by Sachin Katti, an associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science, and Pengyu Zhang, a postdoctoral researcher, HitchHike promises to be the tiny, ultra-low-energy wireless radio that the Internet of Things was looking for since long.

Confident with their research and product, the team described and demonstrated HitchHike to the world in a paper that they presented at the recently concluded Association for Computing Machinery’s SenSys Conference.

The size of a Stamp

The 2 in 1 Hitchhike prototype is a processor and radio all in one. Although it is about the size of a regular sized postage stamp, but its engineers still feel that it can be made smaller so that it can be easily implanted in bio-devices like a wireless heart rate sensor.

With a range of up to 50 meters and an ability to transmit up to 300 kilobits per second—which is several times faster than the fastest dial-up modem of the past, its researchers believe that Hitchhike can make a major contribution in the journey of IoT.

It's researchers named the system HitchHike mainly because of its very innovative and clever design that works by hitchhiking on incoming radio waves from a laptop or a smartphone. It then translates these incoming signals into its own message and retransmits its own data on a different WiFi channel.

Further, since HitchHike takes in about 10,000 times less current than WiFi radios, it can efficiently function for years on a basic coin battery. Although, the researchers believe that the future versions might make use of several tiny solar panels or might even harvest the energy of the incoming WiFi radio waves.

It is important to note that HitchHike can br considered as a more refined variation on a backscatter radio. It actually functions more as a reflector than as a radio. It basically ends up bouncing WiFi signals back into the atmosphere—a signal that is called as the backscatter.

'Code word translation'

In order for HitchHike to function as a true radio, it will have to make a major jump from not just reflecting a message to actually having the capability to be able to produce its own meaningful message. For it to be able to do that, its designers/engineers have successfully developed what they have named as “code word translation.”

In the processor world, HitchHike is considered as a basic translation device. When it comes to the binary digital sector, a WiFi signal is considered much more than just a never ending stream of 1s and 0s, something which a standard WiFi is known to transmit through a set of predefined code words. HitchHike translates the incoming code words very cleverly into its own data.

The next problem on the block for HitchHike was to somehow avoid the radio interference between the new data stream coming from HitchHike and the original signal--both of which are being transmitted at the same time and on the same channel if they haven't been modified. HitchHike ends up shifting its new signal to another WiFi channel altogether, and in the process uses almost no extra power.

According to Pengyu Zhang, one of the two leaders on the project, HitchHike has managed to open the doors for widespread deployment of low-power WiFi communication by making use of a widely available WiFi infrastructure, and for the very first time has been truly able to empower the Internet of Things.

Tiny amounts of energy

HitchHike is being termed by its developers as the first and only self-sufficient WiFi system that has the power of enabling data transmission by making use of just micro-watts of energy—almost zero. Further, one of its many plus points, is that it can be used as it is with the existing WiFi without any additional equipment or any major modification.

The system could lead to a successful widespread adoption in the IoT as it sensors can be easily deployed anywhere one can mange to put a coin battery that already has an existing WiFi. The technology even has the potential of operating without batteries in the near future, and that would indeed be a big development in the IoT field. According to its researchers, in the next 3-5 years, we might be able to witness HitchHike being successfully incorporated into wireless devices.

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