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Outlook 2015: How the Internet of Things is driving the electronics industry forward

In case you hadn't noticed, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the buzz phrase of the moment – and a quick look through Outlook 2015 will show just how important companies perceive the market to be.

And when you look at the amount of business the IoT is predicted to generate, that is no surprise. Research company IDC, in a survey published earlier in 2014, suggests the IoT will generate more than $7trillion of business by 2020 – even today, the IoT market is said by IDC to be worth $2trillion.

One thing on which we can all agree is that the IoT market is huge; quite how large depends on whose market research you believe. A couple of years ago, it was suggested that the IoT would see 50billion devices connected via the internet. That figure has been downsized somewhat, but even the more cautious forecasters can see 20bn connected devices by the end of the decade.

It's also likely the IoT will split into two main camps: consumer based, with a focus on wearable devices; and industrial, representing an update to the old M2M concept. Both will require a number of similar concepts, including security and connectivity.

Security embraces such terms as 'trust' and 'authentication'. With 20bn devices 'talking' to each other, the opportunity for security breaches is enormous. How will any one device know the device which is 'talking' to it is really what it claims to be? Is the software download that is being attempted an authentic update to the device or is it an attempt to gain control of its operation by a third party?

Rambus believes that updating security, for example, via a software update just won't be appropriate for IoT devices of the future; their lifetimes, it says, will be such that software upgrades will be unrealistic. Instead, it says IoT devices should feature hardware based security and isolation mechanisms that offer robust protection against various forms of attack.

The proliferation of IoT devices will bring more and wider networks, it contends, making connectivity an equally large issue. What protocols should be used to communicate? If it's a wireless device, should it use Bluetooth Low Energy or Zigbee, Wi-Fi or 6LoWPAN? And what degree of cryptography might be needed?

ARM has spotted the opportunity to help designers develop IoT products and systems and has expanded its mbed prototyping platform. On the device side, it has developed a configurable IoT focused operating system to run on its Cortex-M3 core. The OS will support some of the key IoT standards, including Bluetooth Smart, cellular, Thread, Wi-Fi and 6LoWPAN.

On the cloud side, it has created software – the mbed Device Server – that will help to aggregate the 'little data' gathered by sensors at the edge into 'big data' for further analysis.

RS Components is one of the driving forces behind Raspberry Pi, perhaps the most popular rapid prototyping platform, and says that electronics has never been so accessible. It lists such factors as affordable system technology platforms, open source software, more design resources from silicon and technology suppliers and distributors, the availability of free PCB and 3D design tools, and rapid prototyping.

What is the consequence of this wider availability? When Arduino, mbed, Raspberry Pi and similar boards appeared, the initial conclusion was these devices would be used mainly by so called 'hobbyists'. But it turns out their uptake has been much wider and that they are being used far more broadly, with many engineers turning to them to start their product development process.

And it's not just the boards; major distributors are rolling out free PCB design packages and some are offering mechanical design software as a complement.

At the 'hobbyist' end, these devices and software packages are indeed democratising electronics. No longer does the hobbyist need to invest significant amounts of cash to pursue their ideas. At the 'professional' end, engineers now have access to devices that allow rapid proofs of concept that will unlock further corporate resources, should their idea be worthy of support.

Electronic devices – whether intended for use in the IoT or not – will need to interface to the real world. In short, demand for analogue technology will continue to grow.

But even analogue is changing as developments in process technology enable new functionality to be offered. Where the analogue devices of some years ago were single function parts produced on analogue friendly processes, today's parts take advantage of what's being called 'smart integration'. Here, digital peripherals are combined with analogue functionality to enable such things as smart sensors and more effective motor control.

The bottom line for many analogue suppliers is their customers want more integrated solutions, as well as the software and tools needed to drive them.

These devices will also need to be powered, with drivers including the need to extend battery life well beyond today's levels. With the IoT, many developers are looking to create products that operate from a single battery for more than 10 years. While digital design techniques will help to achieve this target – with the device waking up every so often to make a measurement and send the data – proving power from the battery efficiently will be a critical factor.

It's easy to ignore the fact that the IoT also involves large scale power – the data collected at the edge will be aggregated and analysed in 'the cloud'. These huge data centres have equally large power requirements – not only to keep the servers running, but also to keep their environment cool. Some estimates suggest data centres now represent more than 1% of global electricity consumption and even a small improvement in efficiency will bring large rewards.

These data centres also handle the vast volume of social media and similar data – often generated from hand held devices. Just like the edge devices for tomorrow's IoT devices, these hand held products need to be as power efficient as possible – consumers now look at battery life early in their selection process, rather than ignoring it as in previous years.

Here, a 5% improvement in power efficiency can translate into an extra hour's worth of battery life – and that's something we can all appreciate.

The components inside these devices – increasingly FPGAs, but there are still some ASICs being developed – continue to become more complex as manufacturers look to cram as much functionality into the fewest numbers of chips. The more complex the device, the harder it is becoming to make sure it works as the design team intended.
Where verification was once undertaken towards the end of the chip design process, it's now starting much earlier – it's far, far cheaper to fix bugs earlier than later. It's also helping companies to ensure they don't miss lucrative market windows.

A couple of other trends are set to affect us all – the electrification of vehicles and their burgeoning intelligence. While electric vehicles continue to develop, if only slowly, the intelligence in cars is booming. We want the same experience in our cars as we get from our consumer devices, according to the industry. We want slick dashboard displays, instead of traditional instruments; we want connectivity; we want efficiency. And, with the imminent arrival of driverless cars, we want safe operation. All of this is challenging the traditional automotive design cycle.

The future holds countless opportunities for electronics companies of all sizes – and it appears these opportunities will only increase.

Graham Pitcher is group editor at Findlay Media.

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Graham Pitcher

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