IoT – the tiny eyes, ears and brains that speak a common language to communicate with each other and with higher capability systems - has been influencing our lives for the past several years. In this column series, we will delve into the rapid development of science and technology in the field of IoT that makes the world “Smart.” In this smart world, devices and environments will automatically and collaboratively serve people. Their capabilities range from taking care of the personal health of humans, pets, and even plants to self-driving cars. Their numbers are orders of magnitude higher than the traditional computers and smartphones we churn out in large quantities each year. This column series explores the continuously evolving IoT technology, and how it transforms everyday work and lifestyle to be more efficient, accessible, comfortable and intelligent. We will also be discussing the opportunities and challenges in building the next-generation Smart world of IoT.
Following topics will be covered as a part of the “IoT Starter Pack” chapter:
“There Are No Wires On Me”
The Internet of Things (IoT) has not been around for very long but the term Internet of Things is 16 years old. Back then, the idea was often called “embedded internet” or “pervasive computing.” Information exchange is the most important aspect of IoT. Telegraph changed the machine communications in the early 19th century. The first radio voice transmission, called “Wireless telegraphy” provided the most important component for developing the Internet of things. The invention of computer then changed the world completely. The internet itself is a significant component of the IoT. Thereafter, the invention of phones provided the basic communications for much of the world.
Now, the Internet of Things has evolved into a complex system ranging from the internet to wireless communication and from Micro-Electronics Systems (MEMS) to embedded systems. IoT is one of the hottest IT buzzwords of the moment. IoT consists of a gigantic network of internet connected “things” and devices including almost anything you can think of, ranging from cellphones to building maintenance to the jet engine of an airplane.
What has changed since the 2000s to make this all possible? There are several key factors. They include low-power radios, advancements in MCU technologies, expansion of networking capabilities, the introduction of data analytics tools, and the creation/adoption of wireless standards that make it simpler for IoT hardware and software from different vendors to interact. The IoT is ripe for new and creative ideas to add to the applications already in use. In terms of creativity, this field is wide open, with an infinite number of ways to “interconnect devices.” Soon it will be hard to imagine a life before it!
Most IoT nodes are a combination of sensors, computing and connectivity, with the latter two playing the most important roles. Although, self-contained computers and their networks have been around for decades, for IoT to truly take off, the bulky computing elements and their wired networks had to go. Fast forward a few years and we have single-chip computers (MCUs) and wireless communication technologies. Continued silicon scaling, efficient architectures, and low power radio technologies have made them smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient. This has led to the proliferation of small, battery-connected devices with “smarts” provided by integrated computing and connectivity.
IoT has arrived. “There Are No Wires On me” looks back at the key technological advances that have made IoT possible.
Radio and the Computer
Few computer manufacturers bother to support the serial protocol anymore, as its IT and desktop functions have largely been replaced by USB and wireless. It’s getting harder and harder to find a new computer with a serial port. Tablets and smart phones are even worse. Some don’t even have a USB port; they largely depend upon wireless for their communications purposes.
In recent times, there has been a lot of effort focused on improving embedded controller architectures, including providing integrated radios or simplifying the means to interface with radio ICs. The emergence of “Programmable wireless sensor-based embedded controllers” allows greater flexibility, ease of management, and configurability. Provisioning sensor data will require these systems to use ultra-low-power wireless transceiver microcontrollers that not only have extremely-low-power standby currents but also employ power conservation techniques to prolong the operating life from a single coin cell. Such techniques could be implemented in hardware or software or a mixture of both, but clearly there are a number of other broader factors that designers need to consider before getting ready to select individual devices.
When it comes to connectivity and computing – the two pillars of IoT – there are many permutations and combinations. IoT devices form a spectrum of capabilities when it comes to computing abilities and bandwidth required – from a shoe that counts steps to a DSLR camera that needs to stream high resolution images and video. Similarly, a spectrum of microcontroller/SoC architectures and radio technologies are available to serve as the foundation for these systems. However, the choice is not always simple, and sometimes even counterintuitive. In a quest to balance abilities, power consumption, and cost, “Radio and the Computer” takes a brief look at computing and wireless devices available today and in the near future.
“Yes, but can it run Linux?”
Sensing, organizing, analyzing, presenting, and decision-making requires software. We have been using various platforms to perform this at varying levels of capabilities for decades. Now we have extremely small devices running from single cell batteries but with the power of 80486 based personal computers from the late 1990s. With bare-metal, RTOS, and true operating systems like Linux to choose from, we’ll run into the similar problems explored in Radio and the Computer, but from a software point of view.
A fully-fledged OS brings compatibility and ease of development, but increases hardware cost and power consumption. For the applications performing limited functions, traditional sequential processing loops and state machines are sufficient. Such a bare-metal coding approach is difficult to get right, but it provides excellent efficiency. An RTOS becomes a necessary means when MCUs integrate more memory and peripherals. The key driver of RTOS adoption is application complexity. A complex IoT application may require more interrupt sources, more functions, and more standard communications interfaces. An RTOS will be likely used in such complex solutions.
RTOSes can make full use of feature-rich MCUs, especially when provided with middleware that can handle complex tasks that otherwise would require a true OS. However, there are many non-overlapping areas of complexity and capability when it comes to software. “Yes, but can it run Linux?” gives an overview of choosing the right software foundation for the hardware.
The Definite Integral
MCUs integrated volatile and non-volatile memories into an otherwise standalone CPU. SoCs enabled the integration of even more peripherals, regulators, clocks, and other components and capabilities into a single chip. We’re not done yet, since there are many more features that we can integrate, starting with wireless and sensor interfaces. Another important prerequisite of an IoT device is security. Billions of interconnected devices bring significant security challenges. Hardware-based security is a feature that works well when integrated into an SoC.
Foundries are evaluating fully depleted silicon-on-insulator (FDSOI) technology custom tailored for integrated IoT controllers. However, with devices that integrate an entire programmable system into a single chip, the future may be already here.
Power supply brings another unique challenge to self-contained IoT nodes. After all, a system is wireless only while the battery lasts. There are ways to leverage the environment to our advantage and yield power from it – starting with our own nuclear reactor in space – the sun.
“The Definite Integral” explores the feasibility and advantages of creating true single-chip IoT controllers and harvesting energy from the operating environments.
In addition to this “IoT Starter Pack,” there will be many other chapters that provide exciting insight into the IoT World! IoT is everywhere and it is essential to be competitive!
Jaya Kathuria Bindra works as an Applications Manager at Cypress Semiconductor Corporation where she is managing the Embedded Applications Group and Solutions Development using the PSoC platform. She has 14+ years of experience in the Semiconductor Industry. She earned an executive management credential from IIM, Bangalore and holds a BS in Electronics Engineering from the Kurukshetra University. Jaya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nidhin MS works as a Staff Applications Engineer at Cypress Semiconductor Corporation. He has 7 years of technical experience with analog, power electronics, touch sensing, embedded computing and connectivity and holds a bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Communication Engineering.