When the edge is the centre

The centre of the much-vaunted Internet of Things is the edge. Whilst the network connectivity that transmits data, the cloud based servers that collate and process it and the applications that they drive are undoubtedly key, none would exist without the distributed infrastructure of sensors and control systems on the factory floor, at the roadside, in the office, at home or quite literally in the field detecting and collecting the information.

Whilst each of these distributed nodes is in itself quite small, the opportunity they collectively represent is vast because of the sheer numbers that will be required as the Internet of Things expands and grows. According to Michael Nelson, Professor of Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University and Internet Technology Director at IBM, the number of objects interconnected online will grow from the current 1billion to 100billion nodes in the next 5 to 10 years.

At its simplest level, a node may consist of a few sensors and a control PC. At a more complex level, nodes might contain enough intelligence to receive and act on control inputs as well as transmit information. Consider some of these possibilities, fulfilled by just one manufacturer, Advantech, recently: a fibre optic-based Ethernet ring for their underground communication networks to improve safety in coal mines; an automated Industrial PC based solution for managing Electric Vehicle charging stations and a wireless system to monitor the water level of the reservoirs at a water treatment plant and checks the pressure in the pipes

Imagination aside, the Internet of Things (IoT) is becoming energised by a wealth of technologies from power sources, power supplies and management devices, through data transmission and collection, to automation and control. Here we review specific developments in three areas that every device on the IoT-edge will need: remote control, connectivity and power.

Remote control and automation

Internet connectivity is fast becoming a must-have feature in automation and control applications. Embedded Web servers allow users to interrogate, debug and control remote systems from anywhere via PCs and smartphones. In addition to displaying information on a user’s browser, such systems can also be programmed to send emails and even tweets triggered by service alerts or low product inventory. End users benefit through cost and time savings since they can centrally monitor, control and service their embedded systems over the Internet instead of physically being there.

ARM-based embedded PCs running Linux OS distributions offer connectivity straight out of the box, in the form of the world’s dominant server software, Apache. Embedded Windows also comes with a Web server – MS Internet Information Server – and Microsoft’s forthcoming version of the OS, Windows 8, will also be able to run IIS. This may be a particularly significant development, as Windows 8 is specifically aimed at ‘intelligent systems’ – a key element in the Internet of Things

There is a wide choice of control platforms available to span all areas of the IoT space, from microcontrollers to powerful single-board computers. Advantech is a name to watch, with a strong emphasis on the Internet of things and a product range covers just about every hardware and software requirement, whether it’s industrial motherboards or slot single board computers, passive backplanes, industrial computer chassis, peripherals or pre-configured system, panel PCs, intelligent video platforms or portable computers.

OEMs and systems integrators can themselves benefit from centralised monitoring and management of these embedded devices. Applications like Advantech’s SUSIAccess provide a ready-to-use remote access solution, allowing system integrators to focus more on their own applications, whilst SUSIAccess automatically configures the system, monitors their devices’ health, and recover any system that may fail.

Efficient connectivity

IoT devices also by definition need a network connection, wired or otherwise. A new generation of Wi-Fi, Ethernet and cellular transceivers makes it easier and quicker than ever to get machines connected. Modules like the Microchip MRF24WB0MA and MRF24WB0MB come with agency certified IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi radio transceivers. The MRF24WB0MA features an integral PCB antenna whilst the MRF24WB0MB utilises an external antenna via its u.FL connector. Time-to-market is fast, thanks to matching circuitry and a free bundled protocol stack. The latter supports a rich selection of UDP and TCP services including Web servers, secure socket layers, IP4 and IPv6, SNMP, SMTP client, FTP, and mDNS.

Space is often at a premium at the edge of the IoT, and Roving Networks RN171 and RN131 modules are of particular interest as they offer a certified Wi-Fi capability in a space-saving surface-mount package with ultra-low power consumption. The RN131 can wake up, connect to a wireless network, send data, and return to sleep mode in less than 100ms, allowing it to run for years on two standard AAA batteries. Using only 35mA when awake and 4 µA when asleep, such remarkable power efficiency makes possible a whole new breed of Internet-enabled products. There are variants available for industrial as well as commercial temperature operation.

Evaluation boards and development kits for these modules help designers climb up the learning curve and speed up development times – all of which are vital in this incredibly dynamic, fast-moving and agile marketplace. It’s a scene that embraces more than just Wi-Fi. Cellular wireless, wired Ethernet, and a plethora of wireless mesh technologies under the umbrella of Industrial, Scientific and Medical wireless frequencies – all contribute to the Internet of Things.

There is help, across the board, for these enabling technologies, with specialist distributors frequently providing the catalyst to bring different vendors’ solutions together. One example of this is Anglia’s recent introduction of a GSM reference design to help customers get to market faster with their Internet-enabled products. The GSM Springboard for Microchip 16/32bit Micro is based on a Cinterion GSM Module and comes with software that demonstrates an embedded HTTP server running on the microcontroller over a GSM Network; and this can be monitored or controlled through any Web browser.

At the edge of the IoT, devices can’t necessarily rely on the availability of mains power. Even where a connection is available, there is often a need for the device to continue operating in the event that it fails. Advances in primary energy sources, new power supply ICs and power management techniques together are greatly extending the period of operation of networked devices in the field.

Today’s Li-ion and Li-polymer cells continue to provide ever-improving energy densities, charging rates and discharge profiles for autonomous objects on the Internet. They are complemented by increasing use of super-capacitors and ultra-capacitors, for example as power back-up for memory functions and providing additional peak power to prolong battery life in devices that use mechanical actuators, for example.

To help designers make the most of this more generous power budget, new generations of battery management ICs are helping designers eke out the last drops of energy to power IoT applications. A good illustration of this the recently-introduced low-voltage input boost regulators for PIC MCUs, which provide an easy-to-use power supply solution for applications powered by either one/two/three-cell alkaline, NiCd, NiMH, one-cell Li-Ion or Li-Polymer batteries. Microchip’s MCP1624/3 are compact, high-efficiency, fixed frequency, synchronous step-up DC-DC converters that can be paired with any PIC® microcontroller. The result: flexible intelligence for any single cell or low voltage application

As Internet connectivity becomes truly ubiquitous, the only limits to expansion of the Internet of Things will be the imagination of people wishing to harness it. To make their visions a reality, many of the electronic components, modules, subsystems and software tools are already in place.


David Potts is Divisional Marketing Manager Semiconductors, Anglia Components

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