Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Class is in session: A short history of wireless

May 4, 2009
By Dick Morley

Dick MorleyWireless works anywhere, at any time. Wireless means communication without wires. When you look at it that way, the human species has been wireless for most of its existence thanks to voice, odor, sight and reading. As we got smarter, we used smoke signals and relayed light signals from mountaintop to mountaintop.

Halfway through the 19th century, electricity was born when Faraday and Maxwell discovered the quantum effects of electrons. This led to wired communication for the first time in human species. We could get distance and speed for transmission of information (e.g. the telegraph and relay technology), but we had to have a physical connection between the sender and the receiver. The wired world that we think has existed forever has only been around for roughly 150 years.

With radio, we can now transfer information without wires. Faraday was the first to use coupled electromagnetics, where one electromagnetic device would instigate a current in another electromagnetic device nearby. This eventually built up into radio (wireless), as well as radar and X-rays, which are methods of non-physical contact to get information. Indeed, wireless was clearly demonstrated in the mid-1800s. When Moore started to march down the semiconductor road, the reduction of semiconductor cost and size expanded the application of wireless, especially in entertainment applications.

Today, we have the ubiquitous Internet and the cellular system, which replaces the wired, land system. The invention of the cellular system impacted the copper market more than anything else. Today, we can talk almost anywhere in the world without copper wire (except the town I live in, which has limited cellular performance).


This leads to a class of universal connectivity, meaning that the multiplicity of languages — a wireless means of transmission — will be dominated by the top five tongues. The nice thing about this connectivity is that it requires no thinking; you just hook it in and almost anyone can run it.

I asked one of my friends in the HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) business what will happen when wireless appears in the industry. He pointed out that only two percent of the HVAC elements are using wireless now, but 10 percent are shipped with the capability. Many people view wireless as “too expensive” compared to the infrastructure now in place. In actuality, wired is more expensive than wireless. The cost of a wired, single point installation in a process is $1,000 US per point. Plus, wired has a lower bandwidth, is less reliable and can’t be moved.

Can we expect appliances like toasters and microwaves to be wireless? Will we widen our zone of control? Of course. We expect to have automatic identification and location throughout the world and possibly the solar system.

The bad news is that we are swimming in information. We can pull down whatever we need and, frequently, more than we need. We have a lot of bandwidth, in satellites and on nodes, which will only increase.

Now your faithful columnist will enter the dangerous world of predictions. The military will change the way war fighting is done. It is already happening with unmanned airplanes and robots. Wireless allows direct-to-user, anywhere-in-the-world planning. Flocks of jeeps and warplanes will be headed by one human, and the others will be autonomous agents, wirelessly coupled to the lead commander.

Further into the future, SCADA systems will be worldwide. We will be looking at supply chains, factories, simulations and control. All PLCs will be wireless. CAD systems will be linked into operating equipment and automatically change the design as the equipment reports back to the main system with the necessary changes.
Back to today, Worcester Polytech is developing transmission systems that can find you even if you’re in a steel refrigerator. They can locate firemen anywhere in a building, no matter the building material. GPS and 911 will continue to be wireless, and unused computer power will be available to all of us.

As with anything, there are risks related to wireless. It won’t solve every problem — the 80/20 rule still applies — and there are hackers and failures in any system. But the frontier of education, SCADA and human interpretation will allow our reach to exceed our grasp.

I do quite a bit of distance learning and am impressed with the packages that allow us to convey, talk and run classes anywhere in the world. We will be able to use a SCADA-like system to look at our life, finances, environment and our health. Will our grandchildren have wireless implants? Likely.

This means that we have a future that is better than nature’s wireless, and wired systems will soon be obsolete. This is the future that we must embrace, because if we don’t do it, who will?

Dick Morley is the inventor of the PLC, an author, speaker, automation industry maverick and a self-proclaimed ubergeek. E-mail him at

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