Wireless sensor networks could have helped prevent the fire that destroyed Naksan Temple in 2005 in Seoul, the Republic of Korea (Photo: Iain Cunningham, 2002)
Gangwon province in the northeast portion of the Republic of Korea (ROK) has an immense amount of natural beauty and resources, and is a major source of clean drinking water for Seoul, the country’s capital city. Mountainous and sparsely populated, tourism and agriculture are the mainstays of the economy. Although this has benefited Gangwon greatly, the lack of industrial infrastructure and its geographical location and environmental features make it susceptible to damage from typhoons, heavy rain and snow, landslides, and natural disasters. Looking for a way to turn these challenges into opportunities, in 2005 the Gangwon Embedded Software Cooperative Research Center (GEMS-CRC) developed a unique warning system that would help minimize the damage caused by extreme weather and natural disasters.
Established in 2004, GEMS-CRC is an affiliate research center of Gangneung-Wonju National University (GWN) in Gangwon province, and is part of the University’s information technology (IT) Cooperative Research Center Establishment Support project. The goal of this project is twofold. First, it is to support local IT research and development (R&D) centers in six provinces of the ROK by providing assistance to promote the development of their IT industries through the commercialization of new technologies. Second, it is to promote the balanced development of the IT industry in the ROK, which is dominated by companies and organizations centered in major metropolitan areas such as Seoul.
When R&D started in 2004, GEMS-CRC decided to focus on wireless sensor network technology for monitoring the environment, and more specifically Ubiquitous Sensor Networks (USN). USN is a term used to describe a network of intelligent sensors that could eventually become ubiquitous. The technology has vast potential as it could facilitate new applications and services in a variety of fields, such as ensuring security and environmental monitoring. The environmental monitoring capability of USN caught the attention of GEMS-CRC researchers, as they realized that it could provide vital information in times of natural disasters or severe weather through capturing photos and sensor readings via scientific instruments and transmit this data back to a remote monitoring station.
Despite the potential advantages of USN, as of 2012 the technology is still relatively new and requires a large degree of customization for each specific application. The first task GEMS-CRC researchers therefore faced was to identify the requirements for a USN geared towards environmental monitoring. They determined that it must consist of spatially distributed autonomous sensors to monitor physical or environmental conditions such as temperature, sound, vibration, pressure, motion, and pollutants. The data will then be coalesced through the network and sent to a main remote monitoring station. GEMS-CRC’s research found that modern USNs are bi-directional, which means that they can not only send data, but can receive instructions and thus be remotely controlled. Such USNs are used in a variety of industrial and consumer applications, such as industrial process monitoring and control, machine health monitoring, environment and habitat monitoring, disaster monitoring, healthcare applications, home automation, building structural safety monitoring, and traffic control. As such, the organization decided to invent new USN technology based on bi-directional implementation.
How wireless sensor networks using GEMS-CRC's invention work (Photo: GEMS-CRC)
After deciding on USN and the necessary technical criteria, the researchers surveyed the demands of companies and organizations to determine how to best develop a USN technology specifically for monitoring the environment. The first task was to research core USN technology that is already in place for environment monitoring and disaster prevention and determine its viability. Networks are of no use without the ability to communicate, and therefore an effective communication protocol (digital message formats and the rules for their exchange) is essential. At the time research started, the main USN communications protocol was Zigbee, which enhances the IEEE 802.15.4 standard (a standard which focuses on low-speed wireless communication) by adding additional network and security layers and an application framework for low power networking of data.
While the Zigbee protocol was the standard, the researchers found that it had many problems in real-world application in outdoor, inhospitable environments. These included the requirement for sensors to be arranged in clusters and low latency (delays that are imperceptible to humans), real-time information processing. Because of these shortcomings, the researchers decided to develop their own protocol that is specific for use in harsh outdoor environments. In 2005, GEMS-CRC invented its own technology for a communication protocol specifically geared towards implementing a USN for environmental monitoring.
Called the Bidirectional Wireless Sensor Line Protocol (Bi-WSLP), it supports bidirectional wireless communication, low power network formation, and long-term battery operation in extreme outdoor conditions. Moreover, Bi-WSLP supports rapid network formation and fast data transmission of large files (such as images). Because of this capability, data can be transmitted en masse, and it allows USN operators to quickly check incoming images and data so false-positives can be removed. This improves the reliability of the USN, which is an essential aspect for successful commercialization.
Following the development of Bi-WSLP, the researchers knew that the technology had to be tested within a USN system comprised of sensor nodes, gateways, servers, and other hardware and software. Due to the innovative nature of the invention, GEMS-CRC had to design and implement a complete Bi-WSLP USN and conduct the necessary field tests. After a thorough testing period, the research team obtained an ideal data transmission reliability rate of 99%, which means that there is almost never any interruption in communication. Following this success, the team had to develop complementary technologies for maintenance of USNs using Bi-WSLP. Effectively maintaining a USN is crucial, especially for those implemented in harsh and inaccessible environments. GEMS-CRC researched possible requirements for their target customers and developed a variety of solutions, such as a system to measure Bi-WSLP USN performance and technology to easily install and maintain the system.
One such important development was the implementation of over-the-air (OTA) technology through a method that uses the bidirectional communication features of Bi-WSLP. OTA is essential for remote management of a USN or other technology (such as a satellite), as it allows maintenance to be performed remotely. The OTA method that GEMS-CRC developed allows remote firmware upgrades. Firmware is a mini operating system that tells a computer how to run, and is essential in a multitude of every day technologies such as computers and mobile phones. When a computer or mobile phone requires a firmware upgrade, it is typically run by the user. In the case of a Bi-WSLP USN, however, a user will not be able to easily access the area were the USN operates and thus will be unable to upgrade the firmware. With the developed OTA method, the firmware of a Bi-WSLP USN can be upgraded remotely, without the need for hands on maintenance. This saves money, time, and, because of the inhospitable environments the Bi-WSLP USN will be located in, makes maintenance much safer.
For all of this technology to run correctly, specific management software is required, and must be installed on a main computer (a “server”) that will receive the data coming in from the sensors, and also carry out vital tasks such as firmware upgrades. GEMS-CRC therefore developed new management software for this specific purpose, and implemented it on its own servers in order to test it and demonstrate Bi-WSLP technology to potential customers.
Prototypes and systems developed for Bi-WSLP technology (Photo: GEMS-CRC)
The core invention – the Bi-WSLP communication protocol – is based on line topology, which is common for outdoor monitoring devices. Line topology refers to many devices all being connected to one main cable (the line), and data sent between these devices runs through this cable. Bi-WSLP exchanges communication extremely fast, yet the software used to run it is extremely small and therefore does not require much memory. The technology can be easily ported to a variety of different hardware platforms because it is written in C, one of the most popular computer programming languages. In addition, Bi-WSLP allows the transmission of large data files (such as still images) as well as common sensor data such as temperature and humidity. The technology is also very flexible, and can easily be modified to conform to the IEEE 802.15.4 standard.
Bi-WSLP has two separate data transmission intervals: one for transmission of common, small sensor data and the other for transmission of large data. Because of these separate intervals, small data can be transmitted with no significant delay while large data is simultaneously transmitted. The invention also supports bi-directional data transmission, which allows a user to not only immediately control the operation of sensor nodes, but also receive responses in near real time. Furthermore, Bi-WSLP also supports OTA, which enables remote firmware updating and remarkably reduces maintenance costs.
At each stage of R&D, GEMS-CRC made detailed patent maps (graphical models of patent visualization) through prior art searches of existing patents, and these played a crucial role in the organizations long-term intellectually property (IP) plans. The searches were facilitated by a contracted patent attorney, and the patent maps allowed GEMS-CRC to hone its focus on what technology should be invented.
In order to maintain a competitive edge and secure licensees, GEMS-CRC made a number of patent applications for all technology associated with the Bi-WSLP protocol. A patent for the core communication technology was applied for with the Korean Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) in July 2006 (#10-0777204), and it was granted in November 2007. Five additional Bi-WSLP related patent applications were filed with KIPO (such as for the OTA technology), all of which have been approved. Recognizing the benefits the technology can provide for other countries, GEMS-CRC also made prodigious use of the international Patent Cooperation Treaty system, which is administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). In August 2008, it made a PCT application for the bidirectional technology based on linear topology used in Bi-WSLP, which was then granted in the United States of America (USA) in July 2009. Another PCT application was made in February 2009 for a double linked wireless sensor network, which was approved in the USA in October 2010. GEMS-CRC has filed six PCT applications in total for technologies related to Bi-WSLP.
When the time comes to seek IP protection, for each specific technology, engineers and researchers discuss amongst themselves whether it should be protected through patents or know-how as trade secrets. Once the necessity of a patent has been decided upon, the engineers and researchers write up the necessary patent applications with the assistance of a patent attorney, which then files them with the KIPO.
The WiUCOM Trademark (KIPO Trademark Registration No. 4020100040990)
GEMS-CRS recognized that a strong brand name could go a long way to make a technology successful. GEMS-CRS initially made a trademark application for “GEUS,” which takes the “GE” from GEMS-CRC and adds “US” for a “Ubiquitous Sensor” network. However, the organization soon discovered that this would infringe upon an existing trademark in the ROK, so they renamed it WiUCOM (Wireless Ubiquitous Communication System). In July 2009, GEMS-CRC applied for a trademark registration for WiUCOM with KIPO. It was approved and registered in October 2010 (No. 4020100040990). This brand name will only be used to market products based on Bi-WSLP technology produced and sold by a possible spin-off company, and it is not meant to be used by any licensees.
Although GEMS-CRC does not have a separate internal IP management strategy, it follows the overall IP regulations and strategy of the Industrial Academy Cooperation Group (IACG) of GWN. Under these regulations, any net earnings from royalties gained through licensing, transferring, or commercializing the technology is shared with the inventors, excluding any expenses for patent applications and technology transfer. Once a patent application has been approved, inventor(s) may be compensated an amount commensurate with IACG’s budget. In addition, the inventor(s) is bound to cooperate with the University and IACG and work according to the regulations laid out for all IP related matters. These internal regulations cover compensation, the acquisition and disposal (if required) of IP rights (IPRs), and technology transfer of IPRs.
Because GEMS-CRC is a non-profit affiliate organization of GWN, it is prohibited from producing or directly commercializing its technology. Licensing is therefore the primary vehicle through which the organization transfers its technology to the commercial sector. GEMS-CRC has an established licensing policy, which adheres to the following regulations. Licenses are granted non-exclusively for five years, and royalties are five percent of all profits. Licensees pay an upfront licensing fee, however this is a smaller sum for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) which have less commercialization and market distribution capability. GEMS-CRC supports the licensee throughout the technology transfer process by preparing the technology for the licensee’s needs, educating the licensee(s) on the technologies, and providing technical and know-how support to the licensee(s) during their commercialization efforts.
In an effort to attract licensees, in 2007 GEMS-CRC demonstrated its Bi-WSLP technology to national press organizations. This unfortunately generated little interest from companies, and the organization determined that its location and affiliation with a smaller provincial university may have played a part. Most large corporations and major universities in the ROK are situated in the Seoul metropolitan area, and smaller universities and R&D institutes such GEMS-CRC tend to enjoy less influence. Brainstorming ways in which its revolutionary technology could change this, the organization concluded that it would prove the superiority and reliability of its Bi-WSLP USN by implementing it in pilot programs throughout the ROK.
With a strong conviction to prove the commercial viability of their invention, GEMS-CRC recognized that the first task at hand was to develop prototypes of the technology to show potential customers how it can be applied in a variety of situations. To that end, from 2007 to 2011 GEMS-CRC developed and constructed an entire array of prototypes, from the sensors and hardware and software required to the necessary computer servers and maintenance equipment, for use in a pilot program. In total, the organization produced 31 Bi-WSLP USN pilot sensors and implemented them in twenty different regions of the country.
The scope of the pilot program (Photo: GEMS-CRC)
This pilot program was a resounding success, and the organization was able to show the commercial sector the viability, effectiveness and possibilities of the technology. It also confirmed the technology’s reliability and showed companies various ways in which it could be implemented in their current business. GEMS-CRC was very persuasive in their presentation and implementation, and throughout the program a number of companies approached the organization inquiring on possible commercialization through licensing agreements.
Particular attention was paid to the pilot program by companies and local governments in 2008, when Sungnyemun, a national treasure in the form of an historic gateway style pagoda located in the heart of Seoul, was severely damaged in an arson attack. One of the locations of the pilot program was at Naksan Temple in Gawngwon province, where GEMS-CRC installed and operated an outdoor monitoring system using Bi-WSLP technology. Naksan Temple was severely damaged in a fire in 2005, and this prompted local officials to take notice of GEMS-CRC’s invention. Because Bi-WSLP sensors can monitor various physical or environmental conditions, such as fire, Naksan Temple became an important location for the pilot program. Governmental officials in Seoul also took note of this after the Naksan Temple fire, and invited GEMS-CRC to give presentations on how Bi-WSLP technology can be effectively commercialized. The inventors were able to convince the official that had Bi-WSLP sensors been implemented at Naksan Temple, the arsonist could have been detected early, authorities and firefighters could have been notified, and damage could have been minimized. The presentations resulted in increased interest in commercializing Bi-WSLP technology from both the governmental and commercial sectors.
Although the technology has been proven through the pilot program and garnered significant interest, as of early 2011 Bi-WSLP is still in the early stages of commercialization. Anticipating further interest and potential licensing agreements, GEMS-CRC has secured certification from the Korea Communications Commission (KCC) for its technology, which is essential for commercialization as it must work within the communication regulations of the ROK. With interest in the technology continually increasing, by 2011 GEMS-CRC was poised to build on the successes of its pilot program for commercialization through licensing with SMEs, large corporations, and local governments. In addition, the success of the Bi-WSLP USN pilot program not only showed the practical applications, commercial viability and reliability of the technology, but it also enhanced the reputation of GEMS-CRC and GWN. This is a powerful tool which can be used to change the regional imbalance in the IT industry in the ROK, and make regional R&D centers more influential.
With the invention of Bi-WSLP comes the opportunity to significantly minimize losses due to natural disaster and severe weather. Strategic use of the IP system through patents and trademarks has given GEMS-CRC a competitive edge, allowed it to develop a licensing scheme and put the technology in an excellent position for large scale commercialization. With instant access to vital information, more reliable warning systems can be put into place, rescue crews will know what they face before arriving, a higher level of safety can be ensured for important national treasures, and lives can be saved.