Outlook 2014: IoT set to benefit embedded systems market

4 mins read

Embedded systems have experienced significant growth over the past decade in markets such as telecommunications, industrial, security and consumer electronics as developers add more intelligence and connectivity to devices and systems. The embedded market growth of the past few years may well be dwarfed by what will come with the build out of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT market is surging and industry leaders predict there will be more than 15billion nodes by 2015; by 2020, there could be 50bn connected devices. According to the GSM Alliance, a quarter of these devices will be mobile handsets and personal computers. The rest will be autonomous devices that will communicate with other machines without user interaction – M2M. M2M communication is on the rise, enabling connected devices to exchange and act upon information without human involvement. M2M technology is opening new markets, enabling devices in our homes, offices and factories to communicate with each other to provide comfort, convenience and security. Smart metering is an example application. Rather than simply measuring power consumption, smart meters enable utility companies to communicate with consumers in near real time or through opt in programmes and to optimise proactively the operation of heavy load appliances during peak demand times. The result is lower electricity bills and a shift of loading so utility companies do not need to invest in new power generation sources to support the few days in a year when grid supply is challenged by demand. Connected home networks leverage M2M technology to enable security monitoring, lighting control and in-home energy management. The availability of even a few sensors – temperature, humidity, motion, light, glass breakage – enables a powerful mesh network that extends the capabilities of all devices connected to the IoT. The rapid growth of M2M connectivity offers companies like Silicon Labs an opportunity to help shape the future of the market by driving standards and developing silicon solutions. A key enabler for M2M connectivity is the emergence of low power wireless sensors for applications ranging from smart meters to building and factory automation. Properties such as scalability, range, power consumption and long term reliability are critical here. Consider scalability: one sensor may not provide status updates quicker than once a second and only transmit a few bytes each time, but a single building can have tens of thousands of nodes. A compelling example is the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, which has more than 70,000 nodes that communicate using a ZigBee mesh network to control lights, air conditioning and other services. In many cases, sensors may be required where connection to mains electricity is impractical and battery powered operation is the only option. The requirement is for a robust network architecture that can handle large amounts of aggregated data, but which does not place prohibitive energy demands on the sensor nodes themselves. The combination of reliability, scalability and power efficiency places stringent demands on the communications technology that wireless sensor nodes can adopt. System integrators must not only consider the benefits and weaknesses of the chosen topologies and wireless protocols, but also the underlying physical properties of the radio technology itself. Concrete walls and multi-path fading are unfriendly to wireless systems, but there are ways to mitigate their impact. To add to the challenge, different countries have their own rules governing radio spectrum and which frequencies can be used. In the world of M2M connectivity, there are no 'one size fits all' solutions. For example, sub GHz and ZigBee wireless networks operate on different parts of the radio spectrum and may be selected for a given application based on their attributes. In a campus environment, 2.4GHz ZigBee is best suited for in building automation systems, while sub GHz RF may be ideal for outdoor lighting and access control. Other connectivity options include Wi-Fi, which is suited for large amounts of data, and Bluetooth, optimised for point to point communications. Each technology has its own strengths and limitations and, in the emerging world of M2M connectivity, these technologies will co-exist. ZigBee – an open, global standards based wireless mesh technology – shares the same 2.4GHz radio spectrum as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, but was designed to address the needs of low power wireless sensor nodes in a mesh configuration. Unlike conventional networking architectures, such as star and point to point, mesh networks can provide robust coverage for every location within a building at the lowest cost per node. Wireless sensor networks based on ZigBee, for example, provide self configuring and self healing mesh connectivity that can be extended to interconnect hundreds or potentially thousands of devices on a network. While hardware provides the foundation for connectivity, software enables the underlying interactions, ensuring that connected devices operate reliably, regardless of the environment. In addition to providing ultra low power, low cost silicon solutions, semiconductor suppliers must also combine the right mix of hardware and software into comprehensive, standards based platforms that are easy to deploy. Although hardware design issues can often be addressed through software, it is better in the long run to begin with the optimal hardware platform and then choose the software tools and stacks that best meet the application requirements. While software is central to M2M applications, interoperability and open standards are equally important, enabling a multitude of devices to interact seamlessly. For example, ZigBee provides a straightforward way to develop products capable of M2M communication. A range of ZigBee standard profiles provides interoperable platforms to simplify the development of a range of IoT applications. To help engineers bring their M2M/IoT devices to market faster, semiconductor suppliers also must offer software development tools that make it easier to implement the elements of an embedded wireless system; adding wireless connectivity to embedded applications can be complex and time consuming, especially for products that originally did not include wireless connectivity. Wireless sensor networks for the M2M market were slow to take off due to the need for ultra low power, reliable and low cost components, but also the lack of standards. Today, we're at an inflection point as companies deliver cost effective, energy friendly devices in small footprints that can be connected reliably in self healing standards based networks. While there is still work to be done to connect all of the players in the ecosystem and to fully realise the potential of M2M connectivity, the major technical hurdles are behind us. For years to come, the IoT will be a significant driver of connected intelligent devices, big data, higher bandwidth and expanded services. We are seeing the first waves of M2M and IoT implementation in diverse pockets of innovation – in our homes, offices, factories, warehouses and hospitals, and in infrastructure, transportation and agriculture. Today, there are Internet connected smart phones, PCs, tablets, TVs, set top boxes, gaming consoles, home appliances and more. New generations of M2M connected devices for the IoT will enable people everywhere to control and monitor the energy consumption in their homes remotely and to manage their lighting and security systems, amongst other activities. In coming waves of IoT development, we'll see the aggregation of connected devices into truly smart homes, smart factories, smart grids and, ultimately, smart cities. Silicon Laboratories Silicon Labs is an industry leader in the innovation of high-performance, analogue intensive, mixed signal ICs. Mixed signal ICs enable the analogue world we live in to interact with the digital world of computing. Electronics ranging from your thermostat to your Smartphone are using more and more mixed-signal content as they become 'smarter', connected and more useful. Daniel Cooley is director of marketing for mcu products at Silicon Laboratories.