A 13-foot-square chamber at BluFlux’s facility in Louisville, which the company says is the only one between the Mississippi River and the West Coast, can be used to test the signals of cell phones, tablets, Machine-to-Machine and Internet of Things devices. The company makes the chamber available for other companies to test their prototypes. Courtesy BluFlux

Boulder Valley’s RF engineers getting the message out

Whether you’re a consumer or businessperson frustrated by dropped cellphone connections at crucial moments or a major energy company needing more frequent pressure readings from pipelines and wellheads, radio-frequency technology becomes an invisible but crucial part of your life.

And if you live and work in the Boulder Valley, the answers to those RF woes are being developed in your backyard – by cutting-edge RF, antenna and electromagnetic engineers at companies as big and established as FreeWave Technologies and as young and ambitious as BluFlux.

In fact, it was Louisville-based startup BluFlux that announced on March 3 that it had received a patent for what it says is the world’s first cellphone case that increases antenna signal while reducing the radiation users receive from everyday use of those phones.

According to its founder and chief executive, Ben Wilmhoff, the reason for those dropped calls is all in your head.

“The human head and hands block or absorb as much as 90 percent of the energy radiated by and transmitted to a cellphone” or contribute to a “detuning” effect of the phone’s “overworked” antenna, Wilmhoff said, adding that his band of “RF geeks” have come up with a way to divert that radiation away from the user’s head by routing the signal’s “phase center” through a different, external “flip-out” antenna, “moving where radiation enters and leaves the phone.”

The deployable device can pop out of the protective case whenever the user is about to enter a “dead zone” such as the familiar one atop Davidson Mesa along U.S. Highway 36 southeast of Boulder, Wilmhoff said. That extra oomph – maybe as much as two bars’ worth – also would be helpful deep inside a building or in the Rocky Mountain backcountry.

An accompanying app “can keep track of areas where you frequently lose a signal and then predict a few seconds before you hit it” so the extra antenna can be deployed, Wilmhoff said. “That information can then be shared and crowdsourced.”

BluFlux, which was born in-house at Fort Collins-based smartphone case maker OtterBox and then launched in March 2014 with funding from OtterBox parent Blue Ocean Enterprises, will work with OtterBox and other case manufacturers to incorporate the technology, Wilmhoff said.

“While the immediate benefits of this technology are for handheld mobile devices, there is huge potential application to other industries like connected car technologies and consumer and industrial Internet of Things,” Wilmhoff said. Such devices “are often small and the space reserved for antennas is a tiny fraction of what is really needed for efficient performance. Our technology allows antennas to be installed virtually anywhere on a small device without sacrificing performance or causing negative interaction with the surrounding environment.”

The company’s facility in Louisville has the only RF testing chamber between the Mississippi River and San Diego and is helping companies bring the next generation of wireless, wearable, connected-car, drone, machine-to-machine and Internet of Things devices to market.

The company is investing in development of wearable technology, which Business Insider predicted would be worth $12.6 billion by 2018. In late February, BluFlux hired Eric Roth as new director of product development. In 2000, he co-developed the first wearable Web-connected activity monitor, the SportBrain iStepX pedometer.

According to many analysts, the Internet of Things – communication between devices – is expected to see at least tenfold growth between now and 2020. Riding that crest is Boulder-based FreeWave, which for 23 years has been designing, manufacturing and delivering machine-to-machine communications solutions.

Its WavePoint high-speed wireless networking platform securely communicates industrial data over long distances to enable M2M, broadband and SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) system applications. Its WaveContact product family expanded its wireless I/O solutions for industrial M2M and IoT applications in remote and hazardous locations such as Antarctica or the North Slope of Alaska.

“It’s used in more than a million devices,” said Glenn Longley, FreeWave’s senior product manager for I/O and software, “from getting oil and gas sensor data back from the field to small to midsized aerial vehicles used for soldier training – and in agriculture, for moving soil pH data from tractors and combines.

“A lot of our customers don’t want their sensor data going out over the public domain,” Longley said. “That’s where FreeWave comes in.”

The challenge that will drive further innovation, Longley said, is that customers want the highest speed of data at long distances. “There will be a continued drive to connect more data points more frequently,” he said. “People used to get encrypted readings once a day, then twice a day, then hourly. Some customers want to get it every minute.”

Dallas Heltzell can be reached at 970-232-3149, 303-630-1962 or dheltzell@bizwestmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DallasHeltzell.

Whether you’re a consumer or businessperson frustrated by dropped cellphone connections at crucial moments or a major energy company needing more frequent pressure readings from pipelines and wellheads, radio-frequency technology becomes an invisible but crucial part of your life.

And if you live and work in the Boulder Valley, the answers to those RF woes are being developed in your backyard – by cutting-edge RF, antenna and electromagnetic engineers at companies as big and established as FreeWave Technologies and as young and ambitious as BluFlux.

In fact, it was Louisville-based startup BluFlux that announced on March 3 that it had received a patent for what it says is the world’s first cellphone case that increases antenna signal while reducing the radiation users receive from everyday use of those phones.

According to its founder and chief executive, Ben Wilmhoff, the reason for those dropped calls is all in your head.

“The human head and hands block or absorb as much as 90 percent of the energy radiated by and transmitted to a cellphone” or contribute to a “detuning” effect of the phone’s “overworked” antenna, Wilmhoff said, adding that his band of “RF geeks” have come up with a way to divert that radiation away from the user’s head by routing the signal’s “phase center” through a different, external “flip-out” antenna, “moving where radiation enters and leaves the phone.”

The deployable device can pop out of the protective case whenever the user is…