The Internet of Things (IoT) has come of age in recent years, but not without some growing pains.

Security concerns, slower than anticipated adoption of smart home products and fragmented IoT ecosystems are just a few of the challenges facing the industry. Despite these obstacles, we expect to see continued, robust IoT market growth in 2018 and beyond. By 2025, an estimated 70 billion connected devices (lights, smart meters, thermostats, wearable devices, and countless others) will be deployed.

A recent report by McKinsey estimated these devices will be responsible for contributing an estimated $11trillion in value to the global economy. Gartner predicts IoT technology will be embedded in 95 percent of new electronic product designs by 2020.

Connected lighting, in particular, is a bright spot in the IoT market. More and more of the lights in our homes and commercial spaces are converting to LED technology, providing a platform for the addition of sensors, controls and connectivity to lights. In the coming years, we will see the addition of cloud analytics and intelligence – the ability to make decisions based on data derived from lighting networks.

The proliferation of smart LEDs opens up possibilities for lighting to become the pervasive network for the connected home by adding Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. This will enable lights to support other applications such as beaconing for occupancy detection and wayfinding, or speakers to make Amazon’s Alexa available in every room. Sengled, for example, has introduced an LED bulb with an integrated speaker controlled by smartphones.

The logical place for widespread deployment of connected lighting is in commercial environments, such as airports, hospitals and shopping malls. These types of large-scale connected lighting applications provide significant ROI in terms of energy savings, safety, and security for building managers and governments. As the price points for connected lighting continue to fall, consumers will directly benefit from the convenience and control over the lighting in their environment, enabling them to tune their light to enhance their sleep, well-being and productivity.

Recent advances in hardware and software technology, including multiprotocol wireless connectivity and mesh networking, make it easy to add IoT features at minimal cost to myriad products like LED lights. Multiprotocol technology is the future of wireless connectivity for the IoT because it mitigates the fact there is no single standard for connectivity. Devices created with multiprotocol SoCs are able to interface with smartphones via Bluetooth with low energy (LE) for device commissioning, adding or removing devices, and controlling devices on a network.

The market trend in the IoT is to eliminate two-chip architectures with a single wireless SoC capable of dynamic switching between multiple protocols while handling the end application code. A single multiprotocol SoC can timeshare the CPU, memory and RF antenna, thereby reducing the wireless subsystem bill-of-materials (BOM) cost and size by up to 40 percent.

Examples of applications that benefit from dynamic multiprotocol switching include:

  • Smart Lighting – In residential lighting, consumers can use smartphone apps to simplify device installation/setup. Commercial lighting systems based on Zigbee can be extended to transmit Bluetooth beacons to enable indoor location services or asset tracking. Installers and maintenance teams can commission Zigbee devices, update software, or perform diagnostics on a specific device via a Bluetooth smartphone or tablet. End users can use smartphones to control a group of lights and receive beacons to assist with indoor navigation.
  • Smart Home – IoT products can connect to popular home automation platforms and voice assistants that support Zigbee while also supporting direct connectivity to smartphones for simple setup and local control and monitoring. For example, a connected door lock can be remotely accessed via the mesh network and unlocked locally via a smartphone app. Bluetooth beacons that include location can be used to enhance smartphone apps and provide additional context for automation applications.
  • Smart Building – Commercial building automation systems powered by Zigbee can be extended, enabling employee interaction using Bluetooth enabled smartphones, tablets or smart tags. For example, connected HVAC systems can automatically adjust based on occupancy or user preferences set in employee profiles.

Mesh networking is becoming mainstream in homes and commercial installations of connected devices. Amazon’s recent introduction of Echo Plus with Zigbee technology highlights the growing market acceptance of mesh technology for mainstream consumer applications. Zigbee is used in many smart home and connected lighting products, and also widely deployed in smart metering applications in the United States and Great Britain. Thread, another 802.14.5 mesh stack launched in 2015, received a big boost from its association with Nest and Google. With the market introduction of the eero Wi-Fi router, the first Thread-enabled products have hit the market. The introduction of Bluetooth mesh technology in July 2017 also underscores the growing momentum of mesh networking in the IoT.

Each of these mesh technologies has its strengths and best use cases, so we won’t see one dominant mesh standard. Zigbee has been around for more than a decade and has built a rich set of cluster libraries or application layers (now known as dotdot), enabling many different device types, from light bulbs and switches to door locks, to talk to each other. Built on 6LoWPAN and IPv6 technologies, Thread is the first mesh stack to support Internet Protocol, enabling hundreds of end nodes across a network to be IP-addressable. While Thread lacks an application layer, it leverages Zigbee dotdot to enable device-to-device and network interoperability.

Bluetooth mesh builds on the standard’s ubiquity and brand popularity to bring mesh to the masses. Bluetooth also comes in many flavors, from classic Basic Rate/Enhanced Data Rate (BR/EDR) for continuous voice/audio streaming to a low energy version for device-to-device data transfers and beacon-style broadcasting. Bluetooth mesh now adds “many-to-many” communications for large-scale networking applications, including asset tracking, home and building automation, lighting, beaconing and smart metering.

Zigbee and Thread networks relay messages through a routing technique in which messages hop from node to node to reach a final destination. Bluetooth mesh, however, uses a managed flooding technique in which each device in the network sends its message to every other node. Although a flooding mesh may be easier and more flexible to deploy for simple applications, it can add an overhead of higher latency and power consumption for some larger-scale networks. Regardless of the type of implementation used, mesh is becoming popular in IoT deployments because it extends range while enhancing network reliability, scalability and energy efficiency.

As the number of end nodes in IoT applications continues to grow, IoT security remains a critical concern waiting for a solution. According to Gartner, through 2022, half of all IoT security budgets will be committed to fault remediation, product recalls, and safety failures rather than protection.

The most effective way to thwart future attack scenarios in the IoT is to stay one step ahead of an adversary’s capabilities. As attackers continually improve techniques and discover new vulnerabilities, device security must evolve over time.

The longevity of IoT devices, combined with rapid advances in knowledge and tools used by attackers, makes it infeasible to design end node devices that will remain secure throughout their practical lifetime. For devices to remain secure, security must be upgradable through software updates. IoT vendors must plan upfront for delivery mechanisms and processes to issue updates. Fortunately, secure bootloaders are readily available, and many devices are already connected to the Internet and have sufficient memory to support regular updates. Enabling secure updates requires minimal effort, and there is no excuse not to do it.

Despite today’s security concerns, the IoT revolution continues. In the coming years, the IoT will become the biggest source of data on the planet. Billions of sensor nodes send vast amounts of data to the cloud for processing and analytics, and this trend will increase as more nodes are deployed. The best way to make meaningful use of all of this IoT-generated data will be through artificial intelligence (AI) systems.

Emerging technologies are also bringing AI capabilities closer to the edge of the network, where IoT end nodes are growing more intelligent, enabling new applications to make critical processing and control decisions locally and with lower latency than in the cloud. The proliferation of IoT-fueled intelligence will help industries optimize productivity through predictive maintenance of factory equipment, give consumers and doctors real-time insight into biometric measurements generated by wearables, and help smart cities prevent accidents and enhance lighting and transportation efficiency. With the growing synergies between the IoT and AI, the possibilities for improving lives and transforming industries are limitless, and we are on the cusp of this revolution.

Author profile: Michele Grieshaber is Chief Marketing Officer, Silicon Labs