Removing Technological Barriers to IoT Adoption through Pre-Certified Connectivity



Modular Sigfox RF solution eliminates technical design barriers, simplifying and shortening the design and certification process by integrating an advanced RF SoC with all of the necessary external components, including CE certification

The Internet-of-Things (IoT) enables greater productivity, control, and efficiency while delivering power and potential across an almost limitless breadth of markets and end applications. It has received a great deal of attention in markets where cutting edge technology has not been employed in a widespread manner yet, especially when connectivity is required.

In industrial and consumer applications, the key blocks of sensing, processing, actuation, and connectivity are pivotal to IoT designs. Modular, plug-and-play solutions for each block, if available, can significantly speed and ease new designs in applications such as smart home / smart buildings, wellness, and asset tracking, to name but a few. This is especially relevant if modular solutions include tailored development tools and require pre-certification regarding any relevant international regulatory standards and protocol requirements.

Connectivity is one of the most challenging areas, proffering a plethora of protocols that are more or less relevant depending on the specific nature of each application. With a built-in infrastructure and long-range connectivity, Sigfox™ has emerged as one of the most useful of the connectivity technologies. However, for many potential designers of IoT solutions, Sigfox is a new technology area, and so easing adoption is key to the proliferation of the IoT.

Challenges with IoT Applications

There are over 31 billion devices (‘things’) connected to the IoT – and thousands more are being connected every day. Together, these devices are bringing huge positive change to consumers and business users all around the world. In the home, automated lighting control is saving energy and providing security. Remote doorbells allow users to be ‘home’ from anywhere on the planet, provided they can access the internet. In business, every detail of a factory or other facility can be monitored; delivering data that will enhance operational efficiency more than ever before. Businesses that operate equipment in remote locations can monitor the operation from the comfort of their offices, eliminating the cost of regular inspection visits. With enhanced data analytics, real-time monitoring, predictive maintenance, and other high-value propositions, the overall benefits of IoT are becoming a reality.

However, many of the attributes that make these IoT devices so useful and portable, such as their small size, connectivity, and ability to be used remotely are also delivering significant challenges to designers. While the devices are physically small, allowing them to be deployed in constrained spaces, an IoT node needs to contain a significant amount of functionality. Typically, this would include a microcontroller (MCU) to manage the system and process data, various types of sensors, depending on what is to be measured or monitored; and cryptographic technology to ensure that any sensitive data is stored and transmitted securely. Also necessary is a power source and, while many IoT devices are deployed in homes, offices, or factories where mains power is available, many of these devices are battery-powered for convenience. Obviously, all IoT devices used in remote locations where no mains power is available will be battery-powered.

The size constraints, as well as the finite energy available from batteries, means that designers have a number of significant challenges to overcome regarding selecting and implementing small, ultra-low power components and developing sophisticated power management algorithms to ensure that no valuable energy is wasted.

Figure 1: The AX-SIP-SFEU is the world’s most compact Sigfox Verified solution; a miniature 7 mm x 9 mm x 1 mm, conformally coated package can be deployed in space-constrained, remote IoT applications.

Challenges in Connecting IoT devices

Another challenge with IoT devices is providing the communications interface that is essential to connect the node to the IoT. This is a relatively specialist area, and one key challenge for designers lies in selecting the most appropriate protocol(s) from the huge range that is available. Some of the protocols are proprietary and intended for very specific applications, while others such as Bluetooth® and Wi-Fi are widely implemented, albeit for short-range applications.

Until recently, cellular technology was one of the only available methods for connecting nodes that are beyond the reach of other short-range wireless technologies such as Bluetooth®. However, cellular was intended for voice and high data rate communications, making it relatively power-hungry and unsuitable for the simple Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications that the IoT requires and relies upon.

Sigfox is a cellular-style system that has been established to provide low power, long range, low data rate, and low-cost communications for remotely connected devices, especially IoT nodes. Aimed at simple M2M communications, the Sigfox network allows simple connectivity over distances far greater than a simple low power transmitter can achieve alone. The network employs Ultra-Narrow Band (UNB) technology that enables low transmitter power while maintaining a robust connection. Designed to fit almost any IoT application, Sigfox has few constraints.  Provided the application does not need to send more than 140 twelve-byte messages per day, and can accept a wireless throughput of 100 bits per second, Sigfox provides a reliable, low power, and low-cost connectivity solution.

However, unlike ubiquitous communication protocols such as Bluetooth, know-how relating to Sigfox is considered relatively ‘niche.’ This presents design engineers with a steep learning curve to design and implement a successful Sigfox-based communications interface, creating a technological barrier-to-entry for companies seeking to address the remote IoT market.

Modular Sigfox Solution Eliminates Technological Design Barriers

ON Semiconductor is active in this sector and recently announced a programmable Sigfox RF transceiver System in Package (SiP) that integrates an advanced RF System-on-Chip (SoC) with all of the necessary external components (including a TCXO), thereby creating an opportunity to simplify and shorten the design and certification process.

ON Semi’s AX-SIP-SFEU SiP delivers out-of-the-box device-to-cloud Sigfox connectivity including both uplink and downlink for remote IoT applications using Sigfox LPWAN communication. The SiP includes a Sigfox radio IC, discrete RF matching components, all required passive components, and firmware in a single package. As the solution has been pre-certified for CE and is Sigfox Verified, using ON Semiconductor’s extensive know-how, designers are assured of a high quality, fully integrated, and complete solution.

The miniature 7 mm x 9 mm x 1 mm, conformally coated package ensures that the AX-SIP-SFEU can be deployed in space-constrained, remote IoT applications. The AX-SIP-SFEU device is the world’s most compact Sigfox Verified solution, ensuring that designers can overcome the physical space challenges of designing remote IoT nodes.  The miniature size is especially suitable for wearables, asset tracking tags, or any other application requiring a small Sigfox solution.

Power-related issues are also significantly reduced by using the AX-SIP-SFEU, as the ultra-low power design incorporates standby, sleep, and deep sleep modes to conserve power when not required to transmit. In these modes, currents of just 0.55 milliamps (mA), 1.2 microamps (mA), and 180 nanoamps (nA) respectively, are drawn, allowing the device to be powered from a coin cell battery (CR2032). Alternatively, energy harvesting techniques may be used, removing the need for any form of battery, management, or replacement.

One of the most daunting aspects of any radio design, especially when designing for the first time, is gaining approvals. The AX-SIP-SFEU SiP is Sigfox Verified for the RC1 zone network, meaning that it is certified to comply with the RF and protocol specifications of the standard, thereby ensuring interoperability. Additionally, the device has achieved CE certification, verifying that it conforms to the health, safety and environmental protection standards for products sold within the European Economic Area.

Summary

While the IoT delivers huge benefits and opportunities, the small and complex nature of nodes creates significant challenges for design engineers. Not only must they meet the physical size constraints and deal with the low power requirements, but they also have to ensure that the RF communications included in the design meet international standards – which add time, cost, and risk to the design process. This is particularly important for remote devices requiring long-range wireless connectivity that need a more cost-effective solution than could be provided with cellular networks.

By using pre-certified, ultra-miniature, ultra-low-power modules such as the AX-SIP-SFEU from ON Semiconductor, designers are now able to design IoT nodes with the confidence that they can implement a pre-certified RF communications system with ease and almost zero risk, thereby removing one of the significant technological barriers to IoT design.                                                                               


Brian Buchanan is the manager of the Wireless Connectivity Solutions business unit in the Applications Products Group at ON Semiconductor with more than 15 years of experience in the semiconductor industry.  He began his career as a mixed-signal design engineer, where he designed multiple products for automotive and industrial applications.  He has held various positions within the company as a product definer, corporate marketing manager, product line manager, strategic marketing manager, and recently took on responsibility for managing the business operations of the Wireless Connectivity Solutions business unit within ON Semiconductor.

Mr. Buchanan holds a Bachelor of Computer Engineering and an MBA from the University of Utah.

 

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