Wireless Connectivity Cuts the Cord
Technology disrupters or paradigm shifts often pose serious threats to existing technology, but also open entirely new opportunities to those that recognize and espouse them. Bob Hult examines the drivers and the results when wireless connectivity cuts the cord.
Progress in just about every field of human endeavor tends to advance at a measured pace but is occasionally altered by a significant event or breakthrough. The invention of the printing press forever changed how written information was shared and stored. The Internet is completely altering the way we access information and communicate. These technology disrupters or paradigm shifts often pose serious threats to existing technology, but also open entirely new opportunities to those that recognize and espouse them.
Copper interconnects have served the electronics industry since its infancy. Wire terminated with separable connectors enables equipment to be efficiently assembled as well as deliver power and signals to/from the host of electronic devices we take for granted today, but change is brewing.
The explosion of mobile devices has begun to alter traditional connectivity with demand for interfaces that free the device from the tether of signal and power cables. A host of both short- and long-range wireless connectivity standards such as cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and RFID offer wireless communication links that are effectively replacing traditional connectors in an expanding universe of remote and mobile devices. At the same time, wireless charging technology offers the convenience of consumer-friendly battery charging while eliminating the need for an external power connector.
As more electronic devices become mobile, the implications for standard copper interfaces continue to grow. The expanding array of wireless interconnection options provides new challenges and opportunities for designers of electronic devices as well as connector manufacturers. Convergence of multiple technologies is fueling the growth of wireless interconnects. They include:
- Improved battery chemistry that results in smaller battery volume, weight, and longer battery life that can extend into many years
- Reduced power consumption using smart sleep modes that reduce power demand to microamps
- Introduction of complete transceiver modules that simplify and speed the process of wireless integration in more products (Texas Instruments recently introduced wireless Wi-Fi capability on a single chip)
- Explosive growth of mobile devices that demand wireless communication and battery charging (expansion of the IOT will generate many more applications)
- Growth of industry consortiums and special interest groups that are creating standards that can certify compliance to the specification, assuring performance, and minimizing risk and time to market
- Increased miniaturization of devices that simply have no space available for a conventional I/O or power connector
The result has been an expanding universe of wireless communication technologies, each of which are finding applications that best suit their specific performance characteristics. For instance:
- Radio Frequency ID (RFID) is used extensively in inventory tracking and toll road applications.
- Near-field communications are being integrated into credit cards and smartphones to enable “tap-to-pay” transactions.
- Bluetooth is one of the most widely adopted short range wireless technologies, used in everything from automotive entertainment to headphones.
- ZigBee is a very-low-power-consuming wireless protocol often used in home automation networks, health monitoring, and advanced remote control applications.
These relataively short range protocols are being supplemented by additional technologies that extend the communication range from a few hundred feet to several miles:
- IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi defines a series of specifications for implementing a wireless local area network (WLAN), allowing computers and peripherals to communicate.
- The ubiquitous cellular phone is an example of a highly specialized radio protocol that provides semi-reliable duplex communication over a wide geographic area.
There are plenty of issues for a design engineer to consider when implementing wireless connectivity. These include maximum reliable range, power consumption, adequate data transfer rate, potential for interference, and security. At the same time, wireless interconnects eliminate the issues of damage and wear of traditional connectors. Wirelessly connected equipment can be moved without relocating cables, especially important in industrial control sensor applications. Elimination of external I/O connectors allows a device to be fully sealed against nasty environments.
To date, wireless connectivity has had relatively little impact on the $50 billion-plus global connector market, and in many cases has created new applications for copper connectors in the supporting infrastructure of wireless links. Wireless connectivity may not represent a true disruption of technology, but along with fiber optic communication, it is a fast-growing segment of the overall connectivity industry that offers one of the best options in terms of data rates, economics, and user convenience in a growing list of specific applications.
Bishop & Associates has just published a new market research report on the subject of wireless data and power interconnects, entitled Evolving Wireless Power and Data Interconnects.