The IoT: Mobile Today, Robotic Tomorrow?

With or without drivers, private fleets are primed to emerge as IoT network nodes.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Feb 10, 2015

Last week, transportation service provider Uber announced its plans to open the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, by joining forces with Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). According to Uber, work at the center will focus on mapping, vehicle safety and autonomous transportation. The National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC), an operating unit within CMU's Robotics Institute (RI), will also play a role in the partnership.

The news generated a fair amount of buzz around the notion that Uber might someday convert its fleet of drivers to fleets of driverless vehicles that you'll be able to hail with your smartphone (while not having to worry about, say, a driver's poor driving or bad intentions). News of the tech center also raised eyebrows because Google, one of Uber's major investors, is of course also quite invested in developing autonomous cars.

But while self-driving cars are a very exciting element of our future transportation system, other pieces of the smart city puzzle are already in place. One of these pieces, which is wholly dependent on vehicles, is the Wi-Fi network developed by Veniam, a company headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., but with Portuguese roots.

In 2005, João Barros, Veniam's CEO, and Susana Sargento, one of its four co-founders, began planting the seeds for the company in the Portuguese city of Porto, where more than 600 vehicles—including more than 400 busses, 150 taxi cabs and a fleet of garbage-collection trucks—now carry the Veniam Netrider Wi-Fi router and serve as moving nodes in a citywide mesh Wi-Fi network. Every day, 95,000 commuters take advantage of free Wi-Fi while riding on the city's public transit system, and they can even do bandwidth-intensive stuff without much worry about losing connectivity, Barros recently explained to me, due to the algorithms that Veniam uses to manage the network. The network itself is composed not only of the Netrider access points installed on vehicles, but also fixed-position access points that are part of the city's telecommunications infrastructure.

Here's how it works, in his words:

"At the radio level, it's all standardized. We use 802.11P and we use 3G and 4G [cellular networks] when we do not have a connection to the vehicle network. But these standards only define how you are establishing a point-to-point link. Our intellectual property solves fundamental networking problems that appear when your nodes are not static and you need connection management. Do I connect to that access point? Or that access point or that vehicle, based on how fast I'm moving?

"The second piece is mobility control. As a passenger, you get into the bus and you connect as Wi-Fi. As the bus moves and you are jumping to different access points, what if you are watching a video or doing a Skype call? We do all the handovers between these nodes so you can continue doing those things.

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