There is no question that the Internet of Things (IoT) market has enormous potential. Literally everything that can be manufactured, from automobiles to refrigerators, is now being considered a candidate for connectivity. Adding features that provide consumers with direct and/or remote access to devices for updates, maintenance or information represent unlimited revenue opportunities for both start-ups and established companies.
Few companies have the expertise or the resources to build every component of their design from scratch. Online suppliers offer myriad sophisticated, off-the-shelf solutions to help designers add wireless connectivity to new and/or existing products, but developers are often hesitant to adopt new technologies as they fear their lack of in-house experience or support tools could lengthen the product design cycle.
A thorough trade-off analysis of your application at the earliest stages of the design process is really the best way to make the right technology choices and get your product to market as quickly as possible. This concept, called virtual prototyping, allows designers to define and test system attributes. In this way, cost constraints, time-to-market and performance requirements can be evaluated and balanced to make sure the end product is both valuable and affordable before making any large design or manufacturing investments.
Understanding Your Application
Even if an engineering team is able to cobble together various components into a working product, few companies have the in-house expertise to navigate all steps necessary to successfully take an IoT product to market. Before jumping on the bandwagon, it is vital that you fully understand the hardware, software and certification requirements of your application before you even begin design. There are several key questions to ask during this analysis phase:
- What is the end goal of the application? Will it be used to track products in a supply chain, or monitor machines for product wear and tear? Does it need to provide real-time data for information, planning or safety/security purposes? Or perhaps the intent is automation and control? Understanding the end-use scenario will enable you to determine the required power and performance levels.
- What are the size requirements ? Today’s consumers seem to want everything to be as small as possible, but at what cost? Take wearables for example. Performance is often limited in these miniature form factors, which are really only capable of supporting small bursts of data. If small size and high-performance is mandated, a long-lasting battery will be needed to extend power consumption demands, which can quickly make the overall solution larger and more costly. Outfitting a large space in a building can be equally as difficult since you will have to determine just how many components will be needed to ensure sufficient signal transmission throughout a facility.
- What are the communication range requirements of the application? In an indoor or urban area, with WiFi readily available, range can be measured in feet or yards. But in an outdoor or rural area, the range needed for a signal to reach the nearest server/wireless gateway could be miles, requiring a cellular or GPS interface. If it’s a long transmission distance, higher power and higher frequencies will be needed. If it’s a remote location that can’t be accessed frequently, battery life will be an important. Interference with physical obstacles or other RF devices can also affect operational distance.
- What is the power source? Transmitter power is a very critical matter in the design of an application since it affects both the range of the communication and the battery life. The longer the range, the more power is required. The more power required, the shorter the battery life. If the device will be powered by batteries alone, then all design decisions must consider how to preserve power. Many networking technologies will not be a good fit with battery power. Frequency of communication has an influence on power selection, too.
- What environmental considerations need to be addressed? One of the many benefits of wireless systems is that they can often go where human beings cannot, including harsh and/or hazardous environments. However, it’s important to verify what types of wireless systems are able to operate in specific situations (hot, cold, wet, dry) and even extreme conditions. For example, an application that needs to be implemented in a medical freezer, or one used in a server farm that emits a great amount of heat, will likely require more frequent monitoring and possibly built-in emergency alerts.
- Does your product need to communicate with other products? If so, then you need to make sure they are interoperable. This goes beyond compliance with organizations such as IEEE, ISO and others, as even these well-known standards are sometimes open to interpretation in more than one way. For example, say there are two different manufacturers of media access controllers (MACs). Both are compliant with the 802.11b standard, but one doesn’t include all the functionality required for a specific operation by the end user. Even though both MACs are compliant with the same standard, they may not be compliant with one another or with the user’s application. The only way to ensure interoperability is via an interoperability testing and certification process.
- What about security? Even if your application isn’t targeted for use by the military, financial industry or health organizations, security of information is, and always will be, a major design consideration. Bottom line, you need to design-in as many layers of encryption protocols as feasible; SSL and passwords at the very minimum.
Article page index:
Now that we’ve outlined the key questions to ask during the analysisphase, let’s take a look at a couple of different applications thatdemonstrate how asking these questions can help determine the righttechnologies for each unique situation.
Case Study #1 – Health Care
Our first case study is a customer that asked us for help indesigning a Real Time Location System (RTLS) to ensure the safety ofhospital staff and patients. The goal was three-fold: to tag infants foridentification/parent matching; to tag children to ensure that they areprotected from abduction and from wandering off; and to protect andlocate staff so that security services or emergency notifications canreach them in the fastest possible time.
Each tag was to have a unique identifying number for patientidentification, including bed location, room number, personal details,etc. The tagging system would be deployed within an adjustable braceletfor patients, or a badge for staff. For example, an infant’s anklebracelet tag would be associated with a tag attached to its mother’swrist at the time of birth for system identification. Staff woulduse hand-held devices to read identifications from all tags to identify amatch. The user interface could be as simple as a green/red light.
The size parameter of the application was a huge variable for us asthe customer wanted the device to be able to work in a wide variety ofhospital sizes and setups. We advised the customer to survey differenthospitals and gauge the approximate minimum and maximum dimensions ofpatient rooms, corridors, entrance halls, etc. The resulting estimateenabled us to plan out the infrastructure needed, including the numberof anchors and tags to be used, the number of Wi-Fi accesspoints/routers needed to ensure sufficient signal transmissionthroughout the facility, and the electrical specifications for thevarious components to be used in the wireless communication model.
We also needed to determine the ideal min/max range of signaltransmission needed between each transmitter and receiver. Understandingrange parameters is vital as it ensures that transmission signals reachthe receivers with enough power to decode the signal efficiently andaccurately. Identifying the type and number of devices required tosupply long-range vs. short-range communication depends largely on thetype of room. For example, empty rooms promote better signal receptionthan full rooms, so need fewer transmitters. Corridors, much liketunnels, have a natural tendency to carry signals in a specificdirection and so need fewer transmitters than, say, a big hall with lotsof furniture and people moving about. In the latter situation, moretransmitters and receivers would be needed to overcome potential signalinterference and distortion. Understanding all of various components,including low-noise amplifiers, power amplifiers, filters, frequencies,antenna specifications, etc., is necessary to determine the RFparameters for any wireless communication system.
Environment was another important consideration. Knowing that the endapplication would be a busy hospital, and that RF signals can quicklylose power and integrity when faced with interference, shadowing,reflection, refraction, etc., we ultimately selected an ultra-wide bandchip technology that was proven to be immune to stray interference andthe penetration of walls, furniture and bodies.
Given the unique security requirements of most hospitals, we alsoneeded an economical and practical method to identify all persons anditems of interest and their locations in real time. We knew therecommended technology, when integrated into an RTLS, would deliver asystem capable of automatically managing the complex securityrequirements across a variety of deployment areas.
Integration turned out not to be an issue for us as the customerhandled the integration with back end components directly. We didprovide support on the chip level/module integration level, butotherwise we were able to redirect the flow of question to the chipmanufacturer.
Article page index:
Case Study #2 – Fleet Management
Fleet management is about as different from a hospital environment asyou can get, yet we still used the same basic questions about size,range, environment, security and integration to help us select andrecommend the right technology for this, our second application.
The customer, a developer, contacted us to help them develop anapplication to provide location-based services for vehicle tracking. Thegoal in this case was to leverage cellular networks and GPS satellitesto send an alert from each vehicle to a control system regarding itslocation and mileage, fuel consumption while refueling, and CO2 emission for carbon offsetting.
As with most types of development applications, size was an importantconsideration. The developer wanted a compact module that would nottake up a lot of space on their board. They were also concerned aboutthe size and weight of the packaging, or surface mount technology. Thisis an important consideration as some packaging is high density, withprovision of hundreds of pins, while others offer a light-weight, thinfootprint. The thermal and electrical characteristics of the packagingis also critical. The qualities of the packaging can affect the overallheat flow between the printed circuit board (PCB) and the chip, and insome cases may protect the chipset from overheating and potentiallydamaging the device. Of all the surface mounting technologies, wetypically recommend BGA or LGA for fleet management applications. BGAoffers high density and ensures the quality of the device during machineplacement of the module. LGA is more robust and therefore a smartoption for fleet management applications with harsh environmentalconsiderations.
Long signal range and global connectivity were perhaps the mostimportant aspects of this location-based service application. For thisreason, we recommended a cellular module that supports multiplefrequency bands. These modules have better coverage throughout thenetwork and ensure operation in remote, as well as high-population,areas. Cellular also offers a variety of different technologies like 2G(with GSM or CDMA), 3G (with HSP and EVDO), and 4G LTE. If anapplication needs higher throughput, we might recommend high performance3G modules. If low cost is a priority, there are 2G modules that offerless throughput but cost optimization.
Once used primarily for backhaul communication between industrialplants to connect and manage remote devices, today’s cellulartechnologies are now being used to support real-time monitoring ofassets. For this application, we recommended a module that would extendfunctionality beyond basic cellular service to advanced telematics, tobetter manage inventory, analyze usage, improve safety and reduce loss.
In order to take advantage of member carrier networks, carriersrequire that each individual module and the final integrated product befully tested and PTCRB certified. Certification can be a lengthy andexpensive process, so we recommended leveraging off-the-shelf modulesthat are pre-certified to meet specific RF protocol standards as set bytheir governing bodies (i.e., Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG),Wi-Fi Alliance, ZigBee Alliance, etc.), to demonstrate reliability andperformance and help speed the certification process.
Environment can wreak havoc on fleet management. Vehicles are oftenon the road for long stretches of time and subject to all kinds of roadconditions and weather. As a result, the module needed to be robust andcapable of maintaining stable performance despite rugged or harshenvironments and a wide variety of temperature ranges. The module alsoneeded to be field programmable, since once installed it’s not reallypractical to remove them for software upgrades.
In feet management applications, most cellular modules also have anintegrated GPS, or are bundled with a high-sensitivity GPS product, toprovide services in remote locations. This is where interoperabilitycomes into play. If interoperability is not enabled, an integratedsolution or a bridge or gateway (made up of hardware and software) willneed to be created to connect the different technologies.
To ensure the security of the vehicles we recommended using an alarmsystem that can alert the user when a breaching event occurs. The eventsmay include keeping the door open longer than a time interval, powerfailure or tampering with the vehicle. These types of security featurescan be integrated with any device for the peace of mind of the fleetowner.
Article page index:
Understanding The Certification Process; Time Isn’t On Your Side
Time-to-marketis a critical factor in the success or failure of many IoT products.Consumers want to see the latest technology as early as possible. Inresponse, technologies are evolving at warp speed with extremely shortdesign cycles, often less than one year for a laptop, phone, etc. Thetesting and certification process, however, can make or breaktime-to-market. If the original design is flawed and requires a secondround of testing or certification, by the time any one product gets tomarket, the market may be flooded with similar competing products, orworse, the product may reach the end of its lifecycle and need to beredesigned before it even gets to market. It pays to educate yourself onthe various compliance and certification standards that may be requiredbefore you can bring your product to market.
Wireless networksimplemented in accordance with standards like IEEE 802.11 are subject toequipment certification and operation requirements established byregional and national regulatory administrations. The standardspecification, such as IEEE 802.11 family establishes some minimumtechnical requirements for the wireless devices, based upon establishedregulations at the time the standard was issued. These regulations aresubject to revision or may be superseded.
Some requirements are notspecified by standards, and are only subject to compliance with localgeographic regulations to ensure safety, security and reliability. Inthe US, all wireless technologies require Federal CommunicationsCommission (FCC) certification (equivalent Approval Regulatory Standardsinclude the Industry Canada (IC) and the European TelecommunicationsStandards Institute (ETSI)). The Commission promotes efficient andreliable access to the electromagnetic spectrum for a variety ofinnovative uses, from fixed microwave links to amateur radio to mobilebroadband services, as well as promotes public safety and emergencyresponses. Manufacturers who certify their devices following FCCcriteria and requirements are assured that their products will offer ahigh degree of performance, reliability and interoperability, whichdelivers extra confidence throughout the value chain. The scheme canreduce time-to-market for new products and help avoid expensive andtime-consuming duplication of testing effort.
A key part of theinteroperability assurance process is the interoperabilitycertification. Simply stating a product “complies with the 802.11bstandard,” for example, will not guarantee interoperability. Typicallythe organization responsible for the interoperability assurance willdevelop a certification program that will include a logo thatensures the product is interoperable. Manufacturers cannot apply thislogo to their products unless they complied with an interoperabilitypolicy and passed the required interoperability tests. The existence ofthe logo will ensure that the product will interoperate with any otherproduct carrying the same logo in a basic, standard operating mode.
CTIA-The WirelessAssociation is the administrator for the PTCRB certification processthat oversees device certification for member carrier networks. Theyalso perform testing to meet requirements enforced by certain carriers.As mentioned previously, carriers require a design be fully tested andcertified before it can utilize a cellular network. Each carrier has itsown unique requirements that change regularly, so it’s important to getthe updated details before you start product development.
Test labs can handle most compliance testing and certifications foryou, but unless you have someone familiar with the various standardsthere is no guarantee that you will successfully pass compliancetesting. Distributors can be a great resource, as they are knowledgeableabout existing design solutions that will facilitate shorter designcycles and first-pass testing success. Development kits, for example,are a great option to facilitate the design process. Theproof-of-concept can also accelerate time-to-market. Integratedplatforms are another great option, as they often incorporate certifiedmodules that have had the vast majority of test cases completed when themodule was certified. Distributors with engineers on staff can alsoprovide best practice schematic reviews to help improve design anddevelopment so that it will pass testing and certification the firsttime.
Thoughtful planning and groundworkis essential to success in the IoT market. To make the right technologychoices and get your product to market as quickly as possible, you needto:
- Evaluate your application goals, cost constraints, time-to-market and performance requirements before you begin design to ensure the end product will be valuable and affordable.
- There is no one ideal solution for every situation. Understand the size, range, environment, interoperability and security requirements of your specific application to determine the best technology for the job.
- Leverage pre-certified, off-the-shelf technologies and engineering best practices to facilitate shorter design cycles and first-pass testing success.
- Educate yourself on the various compliance and certification standards that may be required before you can bring your product to market.
The Internet is awonderful tool offering multiple and disparate connectivity options,platforms and technologies to the savvy developer. While some componentscan be used in multiple scenarios, each application has specificrequirements and constraints that must be taken into consideration.Given the potential extremes in these situations, failure can result insignificant investment to repair or replace the system and even puthuman lives at risk. The key is to fully understand the goals andrequirements of your specific application so you can bring all thevarious options into focus and select the correct technology for eachunique circumstance.
Article page index: