Networking & Communications

SurFlow: Data at 6Gbps across your table, walls or the wings of a spaceship

Few people get worked up about network technology, the plumbing of IT, let’s accept that.

So few will care that a new invention SurFlow, unveiled last month by TWI, uses electro-magnetic pulses to send data, and it doesn’t need to travel along a cable (liked fixed line comms) or be broadcast over the air (like Wi-Fi). The fact that two devices can talk to each other, sending signals through the desk they are sitting on, at a thousand times the average speed of modern broadband, isn’t going to fascinate the majority of the population either.

But the fact that the fabric of everything we reside in, whether it’s your office space or your spaceship, can safely conduct giga fast networking signals could change everything from remote working to robotics.

So let’s concentrate on the major changes this technology could bring about and try to sneak a bit of technical detail in.


Broadband could be a thousand times faster

Inventor Paul Burling at Cambridge-based TWI worked with Janice Turner at electronics engineering consultancy Roke in order to share their knowledge of sending data over composites and plastic, using electromagnetic pulses. A composite is anything made up of a number of materials and it could be, say, the table upon which many computers rest, which are often an amalgam of chipboard and laminate. It could be the walls of your home or the shell of the plane or spaceship or car you are traveling in. These offer much less resistance to the travel of signals than, for example, air offers to radio signals or a copper cable might offer to a conventional network connection. This is why the patented system, SurFlow, can run at 6Gbps. 

So your computers can be networked a lot faster without needing any cables. Indeed, the fabric of whatever structure you are in now can be used to transmit signals.


Networking could be safer

As yet this technology is unhackable, inventor Paul Burling says. The patent application process, which took three years, was relatively quick as there is nothing remotely similar on the market or in development. So for now hackers have no methods for intercepting signals.


Car manufacture could be cheaper

As we head into the era of the Internet of Things, every form of transport is being loaded up with intelligent devices. Smart cars, trucks, trains and planes will all be covered in sensors, transponders and cameras, so that every aspect of their journey can be monitored and managed. But all these devices have to be networked so they can report back to the brains of the networks, and receive instructions from them too. Which means every device has to have a wire running to it. This makes for incredibly fiddly and expensive construction.

Cabling up a plane, for example, is not only labour intensive it contributes to a weakness in the plane. When wiring up all the devices on a passenger jet, for example, there needs to be wires running to each seat in order to deliver all the inflight entertainment and to all the various transponders and controllers that report back on the state of the plane and work the wing flaps.


Travel will be safer

The presence of cable within the structure of the composite materials that make up the wings can introduce air pockets. At 35,000 feet, when there is negligible air pressure outside, these air pockets can expand, and weaken the plane considerably. The beauty of this new SurFlow network technology is it needs no wires, so weaknesses are introduced into the plane’s structure. Signals can be sent over the composite materials that make up the body of the plane, to all parts. The signal can even be split up, the way multi-plexors create separate channels today to send signals at different frequencies over cables.

The lack of wires will make intelligent vehicles not just cheaper to make but more robust and secure.


The new tech could create an economic boom

By creating a fast networking technology that works on the fabric of a construction, the owner of the patent, TWI could make a fortune. Being a UK company, the technology won’t be ruthlessly exploited in the country of origin, but the benefits will be enjoyed in many other industrial nations, if past experience is anything to go by. British companies have a habit of inventing things and allowing others to exploit their commercial benefits to the full. For example Graphene, an extraordinary allotrope of carbon that is 100 times stronger than steel and conducts electricity highly efficiently, was isolated and characterised in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov at the University of Manchester, but today the majority of patents are held by non-UK companies. A British engineer had the idea for the iPhone ahead of Apple, but thanks to the generosity of the UK government body that slowed down development, the lead was given away.


It could be used in the robotics industry and aerospace

In robotics, the technology could be used to enable communication without the use of wires. And in consumer electronics, the technology would allow a device to instantly connect to a network simply by making contact with the composite’s surface, with no need to plug anything in or detect and connect to a wireless network.

SurFlow works using surface waves: electromagnetic energy that travels along a material. By incorporating a substrate combining dielectric and conductive materials, these surface waves can be transmitted through composite structures. The waves are propagated and received using transducers which can be placed anywhere along the smart composite.

This technology has massive potential, since it could galvanise any industry covered by the Internet of Things, which takes in everything from aerospace to robotics to the Intelligent Home. The original announcement didn’t exactly shout these benefits from the rooftops, but engineering companies aren’t generally great at self-promotion. It just needs someone to kickstart it now.


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Nick Booth

Nick Booth worked in IT in the UK’s National Health Service, financial services and The Met Police, witnessing at first hand the disruptive effects of new technology. As a journalist and analyst, his mission is to stop history repeating itself.

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