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U.K. firm drives toward wireless cars

Qinetiq signs a deal to develop technology that will be tested in lampposts and could eventually lead to wireless-enabled cars.

Defense technology company Qinetiq has signed a contract to develop technology that could eventually lead to wireless-enabled cars.

The $11.6 million (6.2 million pounds) contract with U.K. wireless content delivery firm LastMile Communications extends a partnership signed last year, in which Qinetiq--which owns a 1.5 percent stake in LastMile--agreed to produce prototypes using the wireless-based technology.

Gabriel Vizzard, LastMile's marketing director, said on Monday that the companies were "absolutely on track" with their schedule and that LastMile was "happy with the progress that (it is) making."

The technology, known as W-Direct, will initially be tested in lampposts. It operates at 60GHz, which offers more bandwidth than standard Wi-Fi. The idea is that each lamppost will contain a wireless node, which in turn will host "strategically placed content" to be picked up by any wirelessly enabled passerby.

These nodes could supply people with information on local hotels or restaurants, indicating the availability of tables or bedrooms or whether they currently have any specials, Vizzard said. The availability of nearby parking could be another application.

But information for passersby is only the first stage; applications have been suggested whereby the node could be used to pass on vital information for emergency services.

"A public safety vehicle may have a...camera where the policeman stops and transmits the images wirelessly to a nearby node, so that if anything should happen to the officer" that information can be retrieved, Vizzard said.

Eventually, the idea is to develop reliable technology that could be used to transmit information from vehicle to vehicle.

A representative for Qinetiq described a scenario in which, after a car is involved in an accident and the airbag is deployed, "the system might be able to communicate the fact that there's been an accident, to other vehicles in the vicinity."

Early trials in the U.K. will take place at the University of Abertay in Dundee. LastMile, in conjunction with the university's School of Computing and Creative Technologies, is setting up campuswide nodes as "a place for students to pick up and deposit their coursework," Vizzar said.

"We also have a GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) modem in our device for user command and control, in case the device is being tampered with or it needs to be remotely bootstrapped and managed," Vizzard added.

Negotiations are under way with the Dundee city council to extend the plan. The university is working on a multiplayer game using the data structure for nodes on street corners.

Qinetiq's representative pointed out that using "existing roadside" structures such as lampposts eliminated the need to lay an expensive new infrastructure for the nodes. He said that while the company is developing the initial models, future production units would have to be mass-manufactured by another organization.

The technology could potentially dovetail with the aim of Car2Car, a consortium established by car manufacturers such as Audi, BMW and Renault that is working on a European industrial standard for "future communicating cars."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.