The IoT will bring companies and technologies together
The term IoT (Internet of Things) can be bandied around without due care and attention as to what it really means. Caroline Hayes discovers that it is, above all, a technology to enable many market sectors. Importantly, it is also a technology that nurtures collaboration and ecosystems across hardware and software vendors.
Avner Goren, General Manager of Strategic Marketing for TI’s Embedded Processing business, has a clear view of what is the IoT, its uses and its future. “What we are promoting is [that IoT is] not a market. The IoT is an enabling technology for each and every market,” he says. “You and I are currently using the Internet of People,” he explains, “connecting from laptops, phones, maybe machines; but it is people who operate and deploy [the IoT] (to access services like Google Maps).”
“The IoT is about expanding the ISP (Internet Service Provider) to the IoT—things will be connected to the same Internet and same services as we have today.”
To further illustrate the IoT is an enabling technology and not a market in itself, Goren says different market environments have different requirements for the IoT and the wireless technology used for it. For example, the wireless connection mode to deliver data to the Cloud is different in various markets, and is dictated as much by market expectations, he says, as by range, throughput, latency and robustness parameters.
Goren identifies three areas where IoT technology is currently being used:
- home automation,
- industrial or factory automation, and
- wearables or consumer devices.
Of these, the wearables and consumer market may be causing the most interest at the moment, but for Goren, it is by no means the only one. The consumer market is the first area of adoption because it is fast moving, with short design and development cycles. It is not driven by standards, making it more open to new players and developments. The diverse data collected for wearables is just the tip of the iceberg, predicts Goren. Data will progress to the bigger markets, such as smart cities, industrial automation and automotive systems, although, Goren says the cycle times of these markets mean it will be a while before the full impact of the IoT is seen.
Of the three present use cases, the largest change will be in industrial automation, which today uses predominantly robust, wired connections to link sensors and other equipment. The IoT will add complementary technology, Goren believes, to create an evolving technology in the industrial market.
Goren points out the third market, home automation is not a new market and is governed by standardized technology, for example Bluetooth and ZigBee. The IoT will enable growth with new business models and, he predicts, deep penetration of wireless home automation.
Goren’s broader definition of the IoT is “from the sensor to the Cloud.” In other words, the same Internet we know today is used to connect services to control the physical world, using endpoints to generate data.
There are three components to the IoT, says Goren: the node, the gateway and the Cloud. “Texas Instruments is uniquely positioned for the IoT because it has the breadth of products that make up a complete value chain in the IoT ecosystem,” he says, referring to the company’s portfolio of microcontrollers, microprocessors, sensors, wired and wireless connectivity products, analog signal chain, and power management products (See Figure 2).
The node is the analog front end, modules, and wired and wireless connectivity devices. The gateway is made up of the same devices, together with microprocessors to create a more powerful gateway, says Goren, while the Cloud is where the analog and digital technology bring together the data.
This trio is not just about hardware, points out Goren, software is encapsulated in IoT solutions. For example, wireless connectivity can be pre-integrated into a chip to simplify its adaptation to a number of existing technologies to suit the application. There is also an ecosystem of Cloud service providers that connects the node to the Cloud. Goren says a complete solution involves collaboration; for example, integrating the IoT agent—or software component—to allow the device to talk to the Cloud with the Cloud provider delivering the services.
An example of collaboration between IoT hardware and software vendors is the recent announcement by IBM and Texas Instruments. The pair announced the creation of the IBM IoT Ecosystem in April this year. The initiative will see the two companies develop secure, Cloud-hosted provisioning and management for IoT devices to authenticate them. As well as secure operation, the collaboration will facilitate communications from the IoT device to the Cloud to improve the management of services and connectivity using Application Program Interfaces (APIs). The APIs will be made public and available for use by IoT Cloud service providers and silicon vendors.
Texas Instruments works with partners in its own Cloud Ecosystem to help software and hardware vendors (for example, Sierra Wireless and Micrium, in addition to IBM, and many others), to use its technology to connect more devices to the IoT, but also, essentially, to differentiate that technology with value-added services.
Another shift is existing technologies are evolving to encompass the IoT. This brings about innovation without a major revolution. For example, replacing wired connectivity is a small step, but one which enables the IoT. “The IoT needs to offer battery-operated wireless nodes,” says Goren. For example, an alarm system is traditionally a wired network, but a battery-operated, wireless node, (i.e. a sensor placed on a wall) is the IoT-enabled version. To do this, developers must enable power levels such that the sensor will run on a reasonably sized battery without frequent replacement.
The IoT’s reliance on wireless connectivity requires a reduced power budget in microcontrollers, microprocessors and sensors. Effective power management technology will enable, for example, Wi-Fi-based sensors to run in a home for 12 months or more using just two AA batteries, or utility meters placed outside homes to run on a small battery for 10 years.
Different use cases, says Goren, will use different wireless technology. The evolution of markets using the IoT will come about with the ease of use of IoT technology. Simplifying the use of wireless technology means that a team developing applications for the IoT does not need to understand all the technology from software stacks, antenna design to power management, Goren continues. Instead, hardware in the form of chips, I/Os or modules can be used. “A developer does not have to understand how to design a PCB,” he says, “if using pre-integrated, small, printed boards with hardware devices, external passive electronics and, in many cases, an antenna.”
A key point in wireless connectivity for the IoT is the software, Goren asserts. Traditionally, the way to interface wireless was in the lower level of the software, typically level two or three, he says. “This required a deep understanding of software stacks. Integrating the software stack in the application layer (typically, layer seven) means there is no need to know how it works underneath,” explains Goren. Relieving the engineer of the need to understand wireless technology will lead to a broad and quick take-up and deployment of IoT-enabled technology.
IoT In Action
Goren recalls a demo at last year’s Electronica tradeshow with TI’s sensors, microcontrollers, wireless connectivity and software. The solution showed how multiple physical networks could be connected to a unified Cloud. An engineer took it upon himself to change the demo before leaving for the day and surprised his colleagues the next morning when the Bluetooth speaker started reciting the temperature! The engineer had used the temperature sensor as an endpoint, which was connected to a ZigBee gateway using a TI processor and interface. The gateway was connected over an Ethernet connection to the IBM server in the Cloud, and used IBM Cloud software to communicate a Google Translate temperature sentence which was relayed to the Bluetooth speaker. Goren says this is the IoT – a node connected the Cloud, enabling it to do things that were not done before, using equipment and services that already exist.
He offers another example of available services and devices adapted by IoT technology. An air conditioner, controlled by an IR sensor, is connected to the Cloud by Wi-Fi and monitored and controlled by Cloud software. Adding a magnetic ‘capsule’ to the air conditioning system creates a gateway, which can connect to a smartphone that can act as a remote control to program, activate or deactivate the AC unit. All of this can be retro-fitted, points out Goren.
Rather than decisions being made locally, the IoT offers a bigger picture which leads to more analysis ahead of decision making, he says. Another example is a smart meter. Rather than monitor the water pump for leaks, the IoT allows an engineer to look at the whole system to see which area is using more water and identify an area which may be the site of a leakage.
The future IoT will leverage standard Internet services, such as analysis and visualization, and encompass them all, says Goren.
Goren makes a compelling argument for the IoT to be realized sooner rather than later. The hardware, software, networking and interface devices are already available. It merely needs the ingenuity of ISPs and engineers to adapt them to deliver new, exciting services.