Echelon makes it easier to build an Industrial Internet of Things

March 25, 2014

Bernard Cole-March 25, 2014

About a year ago, when people started talking about the impact the emerging Internet of Things would have on existing industrial control networks, one company I kept a close eye on was Echelon Corp. The company’s introduction in January of its IzoT platform for the Industrial Internet of Things and then this week of the "IzoT-in-a-box," have not been a disappointment.

Given its history, the company gets a lot of "street cred" with me for anything to do with the emerging IIoT. The company was founded in 1988 by Armas Clifford "Mike" Markkula, one of Intel Corp.'s first employees, shortly after he bankrolled Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to start up Apple Computer.  (The fact that while he was at Intel Mike was often a useful resource for tips on industry trends for a young technology journalist made me pay attention even then to what he was doing at Echelon.)

Since then, the company and its pioneering Lonworks control network protocol has had as profound an effect on industrial, building automation, and smart grid networking as Apple has had on personal computing and mobile devices.

Echelon's LonWorks platform for control networking was released in 1990 for use in the building, industrial, transportation, and home automation markets. By 2010 approximately 90 million devices were installed with its LonWorks-derived Free Topology technology. The company’s Networked Energy Services system (including Smart Meters, Data Concentrators, and a head-end data collection system) currently has about 3.5 million devices installed worldwide.

The LonTalk communications protocol is a standard for control networking (ANSI/CEA-709.1-B) as is its power line and twisted pair signaling technology. Lonworks is also the basis for IEEE 1473-L (in-train controls), AAR electro-pneumatic braking systems for freight trains, IFSF (European petrol station control), SEMI (semiconductor equipment manufacturing), and as a part of the EN 14908 European building automation standard. The protocol is also one of several data link/physical layers in the BACnet ASHRAE/ANSI standard for building automation.

That protocol is now at the heart of Echelon’s IzoT Industrial Internet of Things framework, detailed last month in a two-part article on Embedded.com. At a time when everyone else is still talking and trying to sort out the complexities, Echelon is already here with a well thought out plan to extend its its Free Topology into the tangled web of interactions the Industrial IoT implementation could become if not done carefully.

This week Echelon has taken the next step in establishing IzoT as a de facto standard with the introduction this week of the FT 6000 Evaluation and Development Kit (aka ‘IzoT In a Box’).

Targeted at developers who are creating, testing, and deploying devices and control applications for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the FT 6000 EVK packages the essential elements of Echelon’s IzoT platform into an aggressively priced and easy-to-use kit for developers looking to create wired devices using the ISO 14908-compatible Free Topology (FT) technology.

The FT 6000 EVK ‘IzoT in a Box’ includes evaluation boards based on the FT 6050 System-on-Chip (SoC), a router to connect the FT-based device network to Ethernet, development tools to develop devices and applications on the boards, and software to commission and manage the device network. With the EVK, developers can create devices that support multiple protocols and that are backward-compatible with LonWorks and BACnet device networks.

The two Evaluation Boards (EVBs) with FT 6050 SoCs include a comprehensive set of inputs and outputs (I/O) as well as simple sensors and actuators for prototyping the IIoT device and device communities..Also included is the IzoT NodeBuilder software for developing and testing embedded device software on the EVBs or on the custom device, as well as Echelon’s Commissioning Tool/EVK Edition for installing and managing EVB-based or custom devices and device network.

Frankly, given the still nascent state of most competitive IIoT efforts, at this time I believe Echelon's IzoT-In-A-Bpx is the best way for designers of industrial control networks to move from a wired to a wireless or mixed wired/wireless IIoT in a cost-effective and reliable way. Wired control networks are not going away. And Lonworks and the Free Topology is in almost 100 million of them.

And that segment is still growing. According to market analysts at IHS, wired connections will continue to account for more than 50 percent of all IIoT connections. Given that, a multi-drop IP network based on the Free Topology is likely to be the best way to go, versus either RS 485 or Ethernet, especially given that devices developed using the FT 6050 can be backward-compatible with LonWorks and BACnet device networks.

The FT 6000 EVK will begin shipping in the next few months for about $895. It can be ordered online at store.echelon.com starting March 30, 2014.

Embedded.com Site Editor Bernard Cole is also editor of the twice-a-week Embedded.com newsletters as well as a partner in the TechRite Associates editorial services consultancy. He welcomes your feedback. Send an email to bccole@acm.org, or call 928-525-9087.

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