Overcoming Challenges of Connecting Intelligent Nodes to the Internet of Things
The Internet has come a long way over the last 30 years. Old-fashioned IPv4 is giving way to IPv6 so that every device on the Internet can have its own IP address. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is on the rise, enabling devices to exchange and act upon information without a person ever being involved. The scope and scale of the Internet have changed as well: industry leaders predict that the number of connected devices will surpass 15 billion nodes by 2015 and reach over 50 billion by 2020. The challenge for the embedded industry is to unlock the value of this growing interconnected web of devices, often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).
According to Metcalfe’s Law, the value of a network is equal to the square of the number of devices connected to it. At the edge of the IoT are the appliances and equipment we use every day. These “things” are interconnected across an infrastructure or backbone using combinations of ZigBee, sub-GHz, Wi-Fi or power line communications (PLC) connectivity to provide a robust bi-directional communications link with relatively long range, low latency for fast responsiveness, low power and a sufficient data rate to aggregate information from many connected devices. This infrastructure also serves as the gateway to the Internet and enables remote monitoring and control of devices by other networks, utility companies and end users.
The majority of connected devices in the IoT, however, are nodes located at the so-called “last inch” of the network. These nodes contain microcontrollers (MCUs), wireless devices, sensors and actuators that provide the brains, eyes and fingers of the Internet of Things. The goal isn’t so much to enable users to connect to all of these devices. Frankly, users don’t want to have to monitor 50+ sensors placed throughout their homes to see if they have left the air conditioner on with a window open. It’s the information these devices gather that’s important, as well as the ability of machines to communicate among themselves and make decisions.
Envisioning the IoT
Smart meters represent a prime example of a high-profile Internet of Things application. Rather than simply measuring power consumption, smart meters enable utility companies to communicate in near real time with consumers or through opt-in programs and proactively shut down the operation of heavy load appliances, such as air conditioners, during peak-demand times. The result is a lower electricity bill for consumers and a shift of loading so that utility companies don’t have to invest in new power generation sources for the few days in a year when supply is challenged by demand.
Smart meters are just one aspect of the emerging smart home. In addition to sharing computing files and multimedia content, connected home networks enable a wide range of security, monitoring and automation applications comprising intelligent lighting, smart appliances and other devices. The availability of even a few sensors – temperature, motion, humidity, light, glass breakage – enables a powerful mesh network that extends the capabilities of all devices connected to it. In fact, the IoT can provide significant benefit to industrial automation, lighting control, home/building automation, security and monitoring, health and fitness, and agricultural applications, to name a few. The IoT also provides new ways to interact with devices. The term â€œapp-cessory,â€ for example, has already been coined to refer to applications on a userâ€™s smartphone that can communicate and control sensors and lights in the home and business.
Achieving Ultra-Low Power Efficiency
Because last-inch devices typically perform limited tasks, they tend to have fairly simple architectures focused on basic data collection, calculation and connectivity functionality. Whether such a device needs an 8-bit or 32-bit microcontroller depends primarily on the types of calculations the device needs to perform. The wider bus and advanced peripherals of 32-bit MCUs also enable substantially faster data movement and computational power than 8-bit MCUs, so devices can return to sleep faster for better power efficiency.
Accelerated Software and Application Design
Software plays a critical role in enabling the features and capabilities required to build out the IoT. Whereas hardware provides the foundation for connectivity, software enables the underlying M2M interactions that ensure that devices operate in a reliable and robust manner regardless of the operating environment.
Consider how the quality of a wireless connection is highly dependent upon the operating environment; i.e., every cell phone user has experienced the need to move around inside a house to get a better signal. Devices such as thermostats are not going to move even an inch to get an improved signal. Latency also comes into play; after 100 ms without a response, most users will tend to press a button again.
Software is what makes wireless networks robust. It ensures that messages have been received and acted upon, such as a light actually turning on. Software also enables developers to implement greater intelligence and flexibility into devices so they can identify problems, raise exceptions and potentially resolve issues without the need for human intervention.
Developers are also able to implement advanced functionality through software. For example, while it is useful to be able to turn on a light remotely, it is even more useful when the light can tell a user that the bulb needs replacing. Software extends the possible range of autonomous control to further improve efficiency and convenience. Consider that, with an intelligent wireless sensor network, a home could determine when no one is home and power down all electronic devices. The result of such a simple change of operation, when multiplied over hundreds of millions of households, is considerable power savings.
Faster Time-to-Market for IoT Applications
To help engineers bring their own IoT devices to market faster, semiconductor suppliers must offer a diverse range of advanced design tools, such as application libraries for accelerating the implementation of key functions, production-ready sample applications, firmware development tools, complete communication and radio stacks with built-in security, and simple demonstration applications that show, for example, how to connect a smartphone to a last-inch device over the Internet.
Today, development tools are available that provide a macroscopic view of the entire network from a single console and create a back-channel link to facilitate troubleshooting and tracing of packets across the network. Specialized wireless development tools are also available to enable developers with little to no RF design experience easily create efficient, robust and cost-effective ZigBee and sub-GHz wireless applications. With the availability of a wide variety of development boards for evaluating the connectivity and performance of various protocols, engineers can simultaneously design and debug application code and firmware, begin RF design and optimization, and finalize network and protocol stack development while hardware prototypes are still under development.
The value of connecting devices to the Internet and having them seamlessly communicate with each other independent of human intervention is no longer under debate. The IoT will continue to open new markets and drive new applications and opportunities for OEMs and application developers across all industries. Nor is there any question about whether the Internet of Things is going to happen given the rapid expansion of applications, such as smart meters and smart home appliances. The IoT has become a tangible reality with commercially successful deployments in several markets, including connected home and green energy applications.
What many OEMs and their suppliers want to know is when the Internet of Things is going to grow out of its infancy and achieve the critical mass necessary to become a 10 M+ unit market. With the availability of the fundamental technologies, products, software and tools necessary to create efficient, ultra-low power devices for the last inch, it is clear the answer is now.
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