Bringing flexibility to the challenges and choices in IoT system evaluation and development

4 mins read

The IoT offers a technological revolution that can deliver higher efficiencies and enhanced productivity in existing equipment infrastructure. More than this, by leveraging cloud-based IT technologies and capabilities, the implementation of real-time data analysis can enable autonomous decision making and create the potential for new services and revenue streams.

However, it can be a complicated, fragmented and potentially fraught transformation, especially for those operating in industrial sectors, where decades of legacy equipment and existing infrastructure cannot be replaced quickly or cost effectively.

Introducing new embedded hardware and software to connect smart sensors with the cloud and enterprise software – potentially via an Internet gateway – brings issues of connectivity, interoperability, security and scalability. All of these can present a serious challenge in connecting previously unconnected systems and devices, especially when dealing with solutions from multiple vendors.

Markets and applications
There are widely varying estimates for the IoT market – as many as 50billion Internet-connected devices by 2025 and more than 12bn new devices shipping per year. A large share of the installed base is expected to be industrial applications, such as industrial automation, building and home automation, smart metering and in alarm and security products and systems.

A classic IoT application is predictive maintenance, where manufacturing or operation data is collected via sensors located within or near to equipment and sent to the cloud for real-time data analysis. This enables the ability to diagnose and prevent equipment failure, which can be a significant advantage for manufacturing companies and vital for critical-service infrastructure. Predictive maintenance can provide a significant impact in high-tech manufacturing and smart factories and in Industry 4.0.

Challenges and connectivity choices
There are many challenges for companies looking to introduce IoT systems and applications, such as: the low power requirements of edge devices that will typically be required to operate from small batteries; scalability and the ability to manage potentially thousands, even millions, of devices; security; and interoperability of discrete solutions at different levels of the IoT chain.

There are also choices to be made in terms of connectivity. Traditional possibilities involve short range wireless communications, such as wireless LAN, Bluetooth Smart or ZigBee from edge devices to a gateway, then Ethernet to the cloud or, potentially, wireless LAN. Another option is to use cellular connectivity send data from the gateway or edge devices directly to the cloud. However, this brings the penalty of higher power consumption.

However, other connectivity options exist, with low power narrowband messaging provided by low power wide area (LPWAN) network technologies such as LoRaWAN and SIGFOX. Complementing cellular mobile network and short-range wireless, LoRaWAN and SIGFOX recognise that many IoT and M2M edge devices will only need to transmit small amounts of data while operating from a small battery. These technologies enable significantly lower costs and better power consumption, as well as supporting networks that have many millions of battery-powered edge devices.

LoRa offers data rates from 0.3 to 22kbit/s, while SIGFOX uses ultra narrow band technology to transmit at rates of up to 1kbit/s. Typically, a SIGFOX modem consumes between 20 and 70mA and virtually nothing when inactive. This can enable battery life of years for edge devices, especially with occasional, rather than continuous, transmission demands.

In addition, there is also an emerging LPWA standard: NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT), which is backed by major telecom operators and equipment vendors. This is part of the GSMA’s Mobile IoT Initiative to deliver low cost and low power communication for IoT networks using cellular standards. While the initiative is still nascent, it offers much promise.

Visible things

To help companies looking to take advantage of the IoT, Avnet Silica has put together the building blocks necessary to deliver a flexible edge to enterprise evaluation and development IoT platform.

Targeting a range of markets, the Visible Things platform (see fig 1) is one of the first IoT systems and applications platforms to made available from an electronics component and systems distributor. The platform delivers tested, proven, secure and integrated hardware and embedded software to connect smart sensors and embedded devices via gateway solutions or LPWA networking technologies, right through to the cloud and enterprise software applications. It is designed to be a highly flexible offering that provides customers a menu of different options along the path from edge to enterprise.

The platform supports short-range connectivity to a gateway, and Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G cellular communications to the cloud and enterprise software applications. It also supports the SIGFOX and LoRaWAN IoT networks, which have been designed to provide secure low-cost narrowband information messaging to meet the requirements of the IoT and smart city, machine-to-machine and industrial applications.

The platform features the UbiquiOS secure gateway embedded software, which integrates cryptographic technologies as well as Transport Layer Security v1.2, and server certificate (OCSP) and client certificate authentication. For additional security, the platform roadmap includes the early introduction of further silicon-based technologies that will, for example, integrate a secure element for deployment in smart sensor edge devices.

Starter kits
Three reference design starter kits have been made available to enable developers to get applications up and running quickly, with each starter kit including a board managed by ARM Cortex based microcontrollers.

The basic Visible Things starter kit comprises a smart sensor board including Bluetooth Smart connectivity and motion, temperature/humidity and light/proximity sensors, together with a gateway board, which manages connectivity to the cloud service via Wi-Fi.

Available as an expansion option, a GSM peripheral module with embedded SIM and SIM-connector options enables cellular connectivity to cloud enterprise software services. SIGFOX and LoRaWAN based kits include SIGFOX and LoRaWAN module sensors respectively, as well as additional motion and light sensors.

The Visible Things platform also provides a mobile app, available for iOS and Android based devices, enabling easy access to local hardware configuration and connection to cloud services.

Cloud services
A key element of the platform is the Devicepoint cloud service. Underpinned by IBM software components, the service builds upon data from sensors and edge devices with contextual information, plus data from other sources to deliver real-time analysis and long-term business intelligence (see fig 2). The tool can also be customised to enable greater management of sensor data for analytics, reporting and workflow management.

Edge to enterprise
While there are many challenges and choices involved in developing IoT systems and applications, there are even more opportunities from being able to deliver better efficiencies and new services to customers. The Visible Things platform is a comprehensive and flexible IoT development solution that offers tested, proven and integrated components to enable companies to deploy edge to enterprise IoT systems quickly.

The platform will be updated continually with new hardware and software options, such as support for NB-IoT communications, further cloud services, enhanced SIM services and increased edge device security features being added.

Author profile:
John Jones is director of innovation at Avnet Silica