M2M Promises Growth for Embedded, Wireless, Sensors, and More

The machine-to-machine (M2M) phenomenon is accelerating and is coming to just about any connected technology near you.

Chris Ciufo,
Senior Editor

Similar to many tech buzzwords before it, M2M is catchy, has a loyal following, and portends “great things”. Just like Y2K, B2B, SEO, CRM and so on. It also has three letters, which I suppose is the right amount in order to not be cumbersome. And like many buzzwords before it, there’s a real possibility that M2M may fade from existence in a few years. Not because machine-to-machine communication is going to go out of favor like B2B, or be a non-starter like Y2K. It’s because M2M will be as common as networking via Wi-Fi. Or air. That is: machines talking to machines will be everywhere and we won’t even think about it. That is, unless we’re designing systems and software that communicate with other, often remote, machines.

According to the forecast by Cisco VNI Mobile, 2012, M2M module data traffic will grow 86 percent CAGR from 2011 – 2016 and represent 266 MB/month per device. This is roughly 10 percent of the total per-smartphone data by 2016; not bad considering every survey says the entire world is consuming content on their phones, not at their desks. So when we decided to make M2M the latest coverage topic for EECatalog, we approached a set of M2M vendors focused on connecting M2M notes via wireless technologies and low overhead protocols.

We learned that M2M devices are just as likely to be bolted to an enterprise network as they are to be lonely, autonomous sites stuck at the edge of a lonely highway reading truckers’ RFID tags as they whiz by. So low power is important since changing batteries or relying on solar energy is a requirement. And of course, there’s no Ethernet way out there on that highway, or out at the back gate motion sensor, or wired to the soda machine in the dreary lobby of the local tire store. So wireless connectivity via ZigBee, Wi-Fi, cellular, or M-bus is essential.

And all of these nodes are going to be talking some lightweight protocol that doesn’t require too much in the way of CPU resources (IPv6 is unlikely). C, Java, MQTT, Python and some scripting languages are the probable choices jabbered over M2M links (Figure 1). If there is any heavy lifting to be done by an M2M node, whether in protocol conversion, database storage, or decision making, a separate M2M Gateway is going to be added to supplement the often low-intelligence node.

Figure 1: Eurotech’s M2M Everyware Cloud relies on the Message Queuing Telemetry Transport publish/subscribe protocol. (Courtesy: Eurotech.)

Another M2M trend our vendors cued us in on is how iPhone-connectedness is perfect for M2M. Smart meters are just one example where consumers can use a smartphone (an M2M device) to query a utility meter (another M2M device). Connections to all kinds of M2M sensors—from security cameras to an automobile’s keyless entry—will give rise to a collection of new M2M Apps that not only do what the consumer orders, but will stream and aggregate sensor data in new and unique ways. Kind of like the first-gen web mash-ups from a few years ago.

Before I reveal the answers to our M2M Roundtable Q&A, it’s noteworthy to comment on what our vendors did not comment on. You see, we provide a list of questions and allow each vendor to choose what to answer. No one wanted to comment on the microcontrollers or feature sets required for an M2M node, nor did they weigh in with an opinion on Intel’s own Intelligent Systems Framework for M2M. I find this interesting.

As well, security was also a question no one dared answer. And the use of open hardware standards for M2M? Nada; no response. My take on these non-answers is that M2M is so variable in implementation and so new, that anything that has a “pulse” is a candidate for M2M connectivity, so hardware standards or processor features just don’t yet matter. Similarly, I guess we’ll worry about that whole security thing when the first system gets hacked and fingers get pointed.

Chris A. Ciufo, Sr. Editor, EE Catalog: How will companies design systems to provide year-long service without changing batteries?


N.Venkatesh, Senior Vice President of Advanced Technologies at Redpine Signals responds: designing a system for long battery life requires a focus on low energy, as opposed to low power. Energy being power over time, the focus is as much on reducing the time for which devices are operational to accomplish their task as it is on the power they consume while accomplishing the task. In wireless systems, reduction of transmission time is accomplished primarily by enabling high receiver performance—the ability to recover data from weak or impaired signals—and in fine-grained control on the turning on or off subsystems or blocks based on the operational data transfer profile.


Mike Ueland, Senior Vice-President & General Manager, Telit Wireless Solutions, North America had this to say: On the M2M hardware side, the latest generation of high-quality cellular modules has very low standby currents. Couple this with solid wake-sleep application software and it is possible to extend battery life for a vast number of applications, particularly field sensors that are the most common users of battery-powered M2M devices.

EE Catalog: Now that every machine can be connected, what language are they going to use?


According to Eurotech Chief Marketing Officer Robert Andres: we are especially excited about Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) as a low-bandwidth, publish/subscribe protocol to use between devices in the field in an M2M application and the communication platform. MQTT is proven, in that it has been adopted by many companies, including Facebook and Twitter. It also is open, in that it has clients written in Java, C and other programming languages; and is standard, in that is has been submitted for approval as a standard within the OASIS organization.

Redpine Signals: They will continue to use a language chosen from a set of available ones. Variations will continue to exist even after every machine is connected.

Telit Wireless: It depends on the application. Many M2M applications only require a minimal level of processing power, therefore scripting languages like Java or Python can be used for very simple applications, for example to report the location of a cargo container. More complicated applications, such as an in-vehicle infotainment system (IVI), requires more processing power and is more likely to use Windows, Android or Linux.

EE Catalog: What are some of the ways M2M systems will interconnect to each other and the cloud?

Eurotech: M2M systems will most effectively and efficiently interconnect through an M2M integration platform, which can be thought of as an enterprise service bus for machines that takes M2M from siloed applications to integrated data flows. Through the M2M integration platform, data producers (sensors, actuators, gateways) from any source can flexibly connect to data consumers (back-office systems, databases, consoles, mobile devices, people) anywhere.

Telit Wireless: A range of topologies and architectures will find niches in the developing M2M landscape. Cellular connectivity will systematically remain the backhaul to single devices or clusters of interconnected machines. These clusters may need to use different wireless technology because of a number of factors such as cost of the cellular connection, or availability of cellular service, among others. With the issue of RF spectrum scarcity remaining, we should expect to see a rise in use of white space [unused frequency spectrum] and other under-used spectrum bands.

EE Catalog: Can existing embedded systems become M2M nodes? Why or why not? What changes are or are not required?

Eurotech: With enough space for M2M client software coupled with connectivity capabilities—from Wi-Fi, cellular, Ethernet, and other wireless and wired options—existing embedded systems can indeed become M2M nodes. As long as they can connect to the network to share data and transmit it in a usable form, existing devices can become M2M nodes. Required changes would depend on the capabilities of the device.

Redpine Signals: Existing embedded systems can and will become M2M nodes. Intermediate subsystems, modules, and equipment—such as serial to Wi-Fi adaptors and M2M gateways —would carry out the translation and be the bridge.

EECatalog: From a software perspective, how are M2M nodes and far-flung systems remotely managed?

Eurotech: M2M nodes require remote device management for initial configuration and recovery operation, and to stay up to date with software capabilities as the application and business logic evolves over time. A modern M2M solution must perform not only sophisticated data management but also device lifecycle management, whether scheduled, in response to events or alarms, in batches by region or type of device, or individually. This capability can only be provided in solutions that highly integrate the edge device (M2M service gateway) with a management or M2M integration platform.

EECatalog: What are the design issues and trends in connecting sensors either to an M2M node, or adding them onto an M2M network?

Eurotech: Some sensors have a cloud client installed, assuming there is space for the software on the sensor, for direct access to the M2M network, while multi-service gateways offer aggregation, on-board processing, and transmission capabilities for sensor data collected in an M2M application. Multi-service gateways allow the expansion of an M2M application to include many different sensors, actuators, devices and things, acting as the on-ramp to the M2M network for all data. This is most effectively done by implementing support for different sensors and field bus protocols as software building blocks of a Java / OSGi application framework.

Telit Wireless: Sensors and sensor technology will see an explosion in innovation as M2M evolves. Wireless will remain the only acceptable strategy to connect them to their control systems. Technologies like ZigBee and wireless M-Bus, which operate in short-range license free spectrum, will be used to connect these sensors to nearby controllers. However, there are also new technologies to wirelessly interconnect sensors directly to the cloud.

EECatalog: Let’s discuss some of the architectures of the Smart Home or the Smart Office.

Telit Wireless: On the smart home side, the proliferation of smartphones has provided a very easy way for consumers to control remote devices such as home security systems, thermostats, or digital television receivers (DVRs), and has been a key factor in driving interest in home automation. On the energy metering side of the smart home, electric utilities are beginning to implement systems designed to bring into the home utility consumption data from outside the home where consumers can see how much [energy] they are consuming. This provides the opportunity to monitor the effects of a change in consumption behavior towards more sustainable levels.

In this scenario, the electric meter outside the home is connected to the cellular network sending your consumption data to the utilities for billing purposes but also communicating with short-range license-free M2M radios, devices and displays inside the home. With this infrastructure in place, the App industry can develop applications for remote home security like locking doors and setting alarms, setting thermostats, and so on.

EE Catalog: Tell us about some of your favorite SoCs or ICs that are ideally suited for M2M nodes, networks and sensors.

Redpine Signals: Redpine’s Connect-io-n family of Wi-Fi modules are ideal for providing connectivity to embedded systems making them M2M nodes. These modules are self-contained in both hardware and software and provide IP based wireless connectivity, putting the node directly on the M2M network. Redpine’s M2MCombo chipset, the RS9113, is an ideal building block of M2M gateways that serve devices communicating one of many wireless connectivity methods: Wi-Fi in 2.4 and 5 GHz, BT EDR, BT LE, and ZigBee. The chipset also offers an interface to a host processor via SDIO, USB, UART or SPI.

EE Catalog: What role might M2M play in high-rel or military/aerospace applications?

Redpine Signals: Military/aerospace applications are particularly heavy in the use of electronics. Systems have evolved fairly independently of each other, making centralized intelligence gathering, analysis, and control even more complex. M2M concepts would help a lot here.

For more M2M news and information, be sure to visit the M2M Zone at DESIGN West. To register, please go to: https://designwest.reg.ubmelectronics.com/2013?cid=EXME


Chris A. Ciufo is senior editor for embedded content at Extension Media, which includes the EECatalog print and digital publications and website, Embedded Intel® Solutions, and other related blogs and embedded channels. He has 29 years of embedded technology experience, and has degrees in electrical engineering, and in materials science, emphasizing solid state physics. He can be reached at cciufo@extensionmedia.com.

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