The Internet of Things: the next wave of our connected world

Tyson Tuttle, Chief Executive Officer, Silicon Labs

May 04, 2014

Tyson Tuttle, Chief Executive Officer, Silicon LabsMay 04, 2014

As the next evolution of computing, the Internet of Things (IoT) will be bigger than all previous computing markets. PCs were the first 100-million-unit-per-year market in the electronics industry. The desktop market today comprises about a billion devices. This includes all the PCs and various wired devices we have in our lives. The handset market was the first one-billion-unit-per-year market for semiconductors. And now the IoT is poised to become the first computing market to reach 10 billion units a year.

Industry experts believe that the IoT will surpass 15 billion connected devices by 2015 and will grow to 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Most of these devices will not be conventional PCs or smartphones. They will be smaller and lower cost, and some of these devices will operate and communicate autonomously. This growing web of interconnected devices includes home appliances, security systems, smart thermostats, smart meters, portable medical devices, health and fitness trackers, smart watches and many other mobile products.

Gartner predicts that the IoT will grow to 26 billion installed units by 2020 (excluding PCs, tablets, and smartphones) while ABI Research predicts that the total number of connected devices will more than triple to reach 30 billion units by 2020. Although analysts and other industry experts may differ in their estimates of the size of the IoT market, they all agree that the IoT opportunity is huge. It’s bigger than the smartphone market today, and it’s going to have a major impact on the economy and how we live.

The phrase “Internet of Things” dates back to 1999, when the British sensor researcher Kevin Ashton (working for Procter & Gamble at that time) is believed to be the first person to use the term in a presentation. Ashton’s early predictions for the IoT are turning out to be on target. The IoT concept has evolved to include billions of devices connected wirelessly to the Internet. Already there are more Internet-connected devices on the planet than people (see Figure 1). These connections can be device-to-person (or vice versa) or machine-to-machine (M2M).

Figure 1. More Connected Devices on the Planet Today Than People
Source: Silicon Labs. Thomson Reuters, Morgan Stanley

Admittedly, there is a “cool” factor to many IoT applications. Consider the profusion of Apple iPhone apps that allow users to remotely monitor and control security, HVAC, and lighting systems with the stroke of a touchscreen. The majority of connected devices for the IoT are nodes located at the so-called “last inch” of the network. Using microcontrollers (MCUs) as the programmable brains of the IoT, embedded sensors and actuators serve as its virtual eyes, ears, and fingers, monitoring and reacting to changes in temperature, humidity, light, physical intrusions, and other environmental conditions.

M2M connectivity, rather than continuous end-user interaction, is vital to the IoT. End users do not want to have to monitor 50 or more sensors placed throughout their homes to see if they’ve left lights on during the day or if there has been a security breach. They would prefer to be alerted directly by an in-home energy management or security system. The distributed intelligence of the IoT can unlock the power of M2M connectivity, using the many virtual interconnections between devices to provide real-time data about our energy usage, lighting systems, and security alarms. Connected devices can act autonomously on our behalf either through direct communication with each other or interaction with a smart gateway or cloud computing resources. Connected devices can also be controlled by end users using smart phones, tablets, PCs, and device interfaces.

The deployment of wireless sensor networks that detect temperature, motion, humidity, light, or glass breakage within smart homes tap the power of the IoT to enhance our convenience, safety, and security. The sensors of a home security system, for example, can be used for other smart home applications, such as a digital lighting system that automatically turns on lights when someone enters a room and then turns them off when no one is present.

Using the IoT, intelligent connected devices can even monitor their own operating health and notify users or OEMs of potential issues. For example, a dishwasher may exhibit a recognized wear pattern. If addressed early by a parts swap or changes to the control algorithm, it is possible to avoid an outage and improve overall reliability, thereby reducing the number of warranty service calls.

When connected devices can be managed over the Internet, end users enjoy greater flexibility in controlling their smart systems. A control application can run on any smart phone, tablet, or computer from any geographic location. By choosing a consistent user interface for the control application, the user does not need to learn new commands for each new function. And the application makes it possible to provide sophisticated interfaces for devices that traditionally have had only a few buttons and LEDs.

The power of the IoT means opportunities for companies in every industry (see Figure 2). Although a security company might find it difficult to expand its reach into the lighting and home automation markets, it could instead partner with established lighting and home automation vendors to create value-added services. This is the power of the emerging IoT ecosystem, which enables electronic component suppliers, software vendors, OEMs, and service providers to focus on their core competencies and leverage the strengths of partnerships to create compelling applications for end users.

Figure 2. The IoT Creates Opportunities for Companies in Many Industries

A prime example of how the IoT is transforming building automation is the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas (see Figure 3). By tapping the power of the IoT, the Aria is setting a new standard for the consummate guest experience. Using ZigBee mesh networking technology, guests are treated to the utmost in convenience and personalized luxury.

The hotel’s 4,300 guest rooms contain 70,000 ZigBee-enabled devices that seamlessly and wirelessly give guests full control of all in-room systems. When guests check into the Aria, they are greeted by an “automated welcome experience.” Every room has a touch-screen automation system that automatically adjusts curtains, turns off unused lights and electronics, and regulates the temperature when a guest enters or leaves the room. Besides giving guests unprecedented control, the IoT also helps the hotel achieve significant savings. Smart buildings like the Aria will bring about massive changes to the building automation and controls market, which is expected to reach $49.5B USD by 2018.

Figure 3. The Aria Hotel in Las Vegas Has an IoT Network with 70,000 ZigBee Devices

A deep understanding of energy efficiency is critical to IoT application development, as many connected devices often must operate using energy harvesting sources or run on batteries for months or years without maintenance or replacement. In addition to energy consumption, connected device developers must consider factors such as system cost, component count, MCU performance, system size, standards, interoperability, security, ease-of-use, and in-field troubleshooting.

ARM Cortex-M cores will most likely be the processor core of choice for most IoT end-node applications. With approximately 25 percent share of the $32B MCU market in 2013, ARM has converted the IoT market in a short time period to Cortex-M cores. The most widely used MCUs for the IoT, such as Silicon Labs EFM32 Gecko family, are based on ARM Cortex-M cores.

We continue to see innovation in extreme energy efficiency for ARM-based MCUs, which are essential components for connected device applications for the IoT. In the next few years, next-generation silicon and software solutions will become available to help IoT developers increase energy efficiency by an order of magnitude, dramatically improving the battery life and functionality of connected devices. In addition, in the near future we will see the market introduction of “Internet of Things SoCs” that will integrate low-energy ARM MCUs, multi-protocol wireless transceivers, and sensor interfaces into single-chip ICs that will significantly reduce the cost, complexity, and power of IoT applications.

Adding wireless connectivity to remote devices not easily reached by Ethernet cable or powerline communications is another IoT design challenge that can be addressed by embedded developers with RF expertise. There is no one wireless or wireline technology that can serve all IoT application needs across an entire network. To develop cost-effective IoT products, engineers must select the optimal wireless technology for their application. As a result, the IoT will be based on a variety of wireless protocols. Wireless choices for the IoT include the following technologies, and each option has benefits and tradeoffs, depending on the application:
  • High data rate, yet high power consumption: Wi-Fi
  • Low data rate, point-to-point short distance: Bluetooth Smart (Low Energy)
  • Low-power mesh networks: ZigBee
  • Low data rate, point-to-point long distance: sub-GHz

For devices to be able to reach out across the Internet, they will also need to support Internet protocol (IP) along the communications channel. Although Wi-Fi natively supports IP and works with smartphones, tablets, and PCs, it consumes too much power for battery-powered connected devices.

For low-bandwidth applications that do not require direct user interaction, 2.4 GHz ZigBee (an open wireless protocol pioneered by the ZigBee Alliance), Bluetooth Smart, and sub-GHz radio technologies provide low-energy wireless links that are easily integrated into embedded systems. For simple applications, such as garage door openers or systems requiring long-distance connectivity like irrigation systems, a sub-GHz radio provides an optimal approach. If two-way communication, security, or a large number of devices need to be connected in a mesh network, ZigBee offers a robust wireless solution.

As it expands, the IoT will continue to open new markets and drive new opportunities for component and software suppliers, product manufacturers, and application developers across all industries. The IoT has become a viable reality with commercially successful deployments in several markets including the connected home and smart energy. In the wake of Google’s recent acquisition of Nest for $3.2 billion, high-profile IoT product introductions, and keynotes at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), many electronics industry watchers are proclaiming that 2014 will be “the year of the Internet of Things.”

The fundamental technologies, products, software, and tools necessary to create efficient, ultra-low-power connected devices for the IoT are available today. In coming waves of IoT development, we’ll see the aggregation of connected devices into truly smart homes, smart factories, smart grids and smart cities.

CEO Tyson Tuttle joined Silicon Labs in 1997 and helped design the company’s first product, a silicon DAA that subsequently achieved market share leadership in PC modems and allowed the company to go public in 2000. He also spearheaded the development and market penetration strategy of the company’s successful radio and TV tuner ICs, creating the broadcast business that today represents about one-third of the company. He took over as chief operating officer in 2011 with responsibility for the company’s business units and R&D, and he became CEO in 2012. Mr. Tuttle holds an M.S. in electrical engineering from UCLA and a B.S. in electrical engineering from Johns Hopkins University. He has 61 patents issued or pending in the areas of RF and mixed-signal IC design.

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