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Why TWI’s SurFlow could really change the landscape

Nick Booth has been talking to TWI and is intrigued by a networking technology that can run faster, more securely and make every sort of physical transport cheaper and safer

British companies are brilliant at inventing things. Given the size of this rainy nation, we must be in the top three in the per-capita innovation world league. Possibly the top one. Sadly, when it comes to commercialising these inventions, we’re mid table in the Croydon Sunday League. Americans like to be the smartest guy in the room. The British inventor the most self deprecating.

If there is one thing we are even better at then innovation, it’s shooting ourselves in the foot. We can’t look at an open goal without stumbling and knocking the ball just a few yards. To complete the agony, we then have to our watch opponents smash their ball into the net without hesitation then perform a jingoistic victory parade.

The computing industry is like football. We invented the game, now everyone beats us at it! Boy that hurts.  

So, it’s with a mixture of emotions that I bring this news of another discovery. I have great hopes for Paul Birling, his employer TWI and his invention SurFlow, which has the potential to not just shift paradigms, but to send them all to the scrap yard where they can be melted down and recycled. But I’m worried it’ll be Graphene or the iPhone all over again. (Yes a British engineer had the idea for the iPhone first). I’m not sure I can take any more disappointment.

Birling has spent three years getting a patent for the technology behind SurFlow and in that time the UK Patent pedants had to be confident that nobody has come anywhere near inventing anything like it. Three years is relatively quick, says, Birling, which probably reflects how outstanding this new invention is.

In partnership with Janice Turner at electronics engineering consultancy Roke, they have jointly created a way of sending data at 6 Gbps without needing cables and without the insecurity of wi-fi signals. The system uses electro-magnetic waves and, here’s the genius that Turner supplied, it can use inert materials like plastics and ‘composites’ as the medium.

So the chipboard/laminate monstrosity on which my computer rests as I type this article could potentially network my data at 6 gigabits per second. I could chuck away the cables and just put the computer and the printer on the same table, and they could talk to each other, via the medium of the electromagnetic waves sent across the cheap composite of laminate and chipboard that Argos described as a desk.

But there are much biggest and better applications for this magnificent, high speed, as yet unhackable medium.

When planes are manufactured, for example, cabling them up to deliver entertainment to each seat, hundreds of transponder reports back to the blackbox and management controls from the pilot is massively labour intensive and expensive. In the manufacturing process, any air packets that get into the composite that the wings are made of - and it can, thanks to the complication of incorporating hundreds of fiddly cables - will expand against the minimal atmospheric pressure at 35,000 feet. Which could create a fatal weakness in the plane’s structure. But with SurFlow, all the complicated communications that take place across the plane, from in flight entertainment to transponders, can be conducted over the body of the plane. Better still, the pulses can be split up into different levels, in the way that multiplexers split up a signal on a cable transmission. Except that resistance to the passage of SurFlow’s electromagnetic waves is a tiny fraction of the drag imposed on signals over cables. Which is why SurFlow can get networking through of six Gbps.

For obvious reasons, car and truck makers can enjoy the same safety benefits, and economies of manufacture, from using SurFlow as a basis of construction. Which should be a massive boon to automative industries in the age of the Internet of Things.

So, for a multitude of reasons, SurFlow could catalyse a surge in networking speeds, better security and boost all kids of manufacturing industries as the Age of Intelligence takes off. It must be worth partnering with them somehow. Maybe TWI could be the next ARM.

Still, let’s not make a fuss about it. Better leave it to the Americans.

This was last published in August 2016

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