Tag Archives: mcu-wireless

RF Modules: A low risk path to wireless success

It is rare for a day to go by without having at least one conversation with an embedded developer, project manager, Maker / hacker or hobbyist where the subject of the Internet of Things (IoT) and/or wireless connectivity does not come up in discussion.

Today, IoT is certainly a major focus in product development and wireless is a major component of that solution. Usually, my conversation centers around comments from product developers regarding how difficult it is to develop a production ready wireless product on the first pass; it is especially difficult for the growing number of product developers or Makers that are just getting their feet wet in wireless design and development.

Only the very experienced RF designers are willing to start from scratch when beginning a new wireless product design. For the rest of us, we look for proven reference designs and more recently, the first thing we browse for is an off-the-shelf certified module.

In comes Atmel! The company has recognized for a while that RF modules provide a low risk path to success, for those seeking to add wireless connectivity to their product. And, it is this realization that has led to a growing family of RF modules to meet one’s wireless needs in Wi-Fi, 802.15.4, and BLE coming soon.

Examples of 802.15.4 Zigbit wireless modules.

The certified wireless module approach turns a complicated RF design task into an easier, more manageable digital peripheral interface task. Don’t misunderstand me, one still must be careful and adhere to best practices in your embedded PCB design to support an RF module; however, it is a much easier to be successful on the first go-around when using an RF module than it would be starting from a chipset or IC layout and design.

typical wireless module

A typical wireless module with on board “chip” antenna (white rectangle shown in image).

For the most part, the layout of impedance controlled traces, and antenna layout and matching are all taken care of for you when using a module. Usually, the most difficult thing you have to consider is placement of the module on your target or carrier board, such that your placement does not adversely affect the radiation pattern or tuning of the antenna.

Not only does the design become simpler, but the costs associated with getting a wireless device to market becomes lower.  Because in general, all of the fees and time associated with governmental certification testing for agencies like the FCC, CE and IC (Industry Canada), are already taken care of for you. Also in most cases, the modules are shipped with a unique IEEE MAC address pre-programmed into the module’s non-volatile memory, so that each unit has a world wide unique address. By using a module that contains this pre-programmed assigned address, you can avoid the costs of obtaining a block of IEEE addresses assigned to your company.

At first glance, the cost of using a complete pre-certified RF module in a production design, as compared to implementing one’s own chip set design may appear more expensive. However, for those doing this for the first time with a staff that does not have a lot of RF design and certification experience, the hidden costs and time required to achieve the performance your application requires and to get the product into the market, leads to a lot of unwanted surprises requiring multiple attempts to achieve the final goal. Starting with a module helps get the product into the market faster with less risk, and provides a way to get product acceptance, before having to deal with cost reduction activity’s that may require moving from a module solution to a chip set solution.

For those that get to the position where the use of a pre-certified module on a proven product requires a cost reduction, Atmel has a solution ready for you. Each of the Atmel Zigbit modules have complete Altium design files and Gerber files available for free download via the Atmel website. This will enable you to take the exact design files that were used to create the module you were using or considering, and to use these files to devise your own version of that design. You can then have your new chip based layout manufactured by your own contract manufacturer; thus, you do not have to start over from the beginning and you already know that this RF design works well and can be easily certified. Governmental certification of your own board layout would be required, and in the case of the United States, you would be given your own FCC ID assigned to your company for this product.

For those product designers that are experienced in RF layout and design, a module can allow you to create a proof-of-concept product prototype very quickly and with little effort. Once the concepts have been proven and features have been decided upon, you can migrate from module to chip set design for high volume production.

Software developers, Makers, and hobbyists can eliminate a lot of the issues often found when trying to create low volume wireless products by obtaining one of the many Atmel evaluation boards that contain a wireless module.

These boards typically come with a bootloader and with some form of pre-loaded firmware to get you started immediately. You can explore that topic in more detail in an earlier Bits & Pieces post that describes the wireless composer and the Performance Analyzer firmware.

The Performance Analyzer firmware is what typically comes pre-installed on a Zigbit module “evaluation” board. Otherwise, the module itself would come with only a pre-programmed bootloader.

module evaluation board

You can learn more and download user guides / datasheets for the Atmel Zigbit modules via this link.

With the Internet of Things becoming such a focus at this time, you may want to get started with a pair of low-cost wireless module evaluation boards and use this platform to learn wireless connectivity techniques that can be used in your current or future job.  Demand for those with knowledge and experience in wireless connectivity and embedded systems is growing greater everyday.

Whether you’re a Maker or an engineer that wants to create a home project that requires a microcontroller and some type of wireless connectivity, you might want to take a look at the ATZB-256RFR2-XPRO evaluation board that includes the ATZB-S1-256-3-0-C module already mounted on it. This module is based upon the megaAVR microcontroller core and includes an 802.15.4 2.4ghz radio as a peripheral/.You may recognize the megaAVR core as being the same MCU core as used in the well-known and incredibly popular Arduino Uno board. You can use the familiar Arduino IDE for development and many of the Arduino libraries available on the internet will run directly on this module. Additionally, you can also find a bootloader and sample Lwmesh (Light Weight Mesh wireless networking) applications for this module here. (Search for for “ATmega256RFR2 Arduino Solution.”)

Look to our friends at Adafruit and Sparkfun to obtain various sensor breakout boards to complete your wireless connectivity projects.

Do you have big ideas? You can feel confident that with the 256k of flash program memory and the 32k of data sram available with the ATZB-S1-256-3-0-C module, as you will be able to create any Arduino application that comes to mind. And don’t forget, you have an onboard 802.15.4 2.4Ghz radio for your wireless connectivity needs. If you find you need additional features in your development and debug tools, you can simply move to Atmel Studio with its rich set of features.

Calling all Radio Amateurs CQ CQ CQ de NS1C… 

Are you now, or have you been in the past, involved in Amateur Radio? Have you been dreaming about QRP low power radios that are very small, battery operated, a complete radio solution, and cost in the $29 to $39 dollar range? You’re in luck — boards and modules are available that operate in the 915mhz or 2.4ghz radio bands! As a HAM radio operator, you are allowed to take the capabilities of these 802.15.4 radio modules even further than an engineer who is required to create a license free ISM radio solution. You can experiment with additional RF output power and experiment with high gain directional antennas (use the modules with u.FL RF connectors).

Maybe a nice field day project for next year would be to use a low power 15.4 radio from the top of a mountain or high hill and use mesh networking to see how many hops a group of participants can communicate over. Voice communication certainly could be implemented using external analog circuitry and some additional software; however, when getting started, you could stick to digital data communications or use the wireless microcontrollers to control or monitor other components of your Amateur radio station.

Parents teach your children…. or maybe, children teach your parents!

I am sure that everyone can think of many home or science fair projects where a parent and child can work together (hardware / software / documentation) and everyone can learn something new. Heck, in the end, you may actually invent the next great product that your family can introduce to the world!

Your possibilities are endless.

Medical tech surging with the Internet of Things

Medical devices are proliferating at a bewildering pace. My pal Frank Fowler sent this YouTube video of how you can use your smartphone to take an EKG or monitor your vitals. Of course, we engineers know that the phone is just a passive display, the real action is in the sensors, signal conditioning and wireless tech used to get the signals to the cloud. It’s an embedded world and consumers are going to be blown away by all the useful products that we engineers will be bringing them. In addition to the pillars of microcontrollers and wireless, Atmel is committed to bringing security chips to market too. For medical applications like this, security is more than a nice feature; it may be a regulatory requirement to insure your data remains private.

The video demonstrates a little misunderstanding that the iPhone is in any way central to this. All it is doing is displaying data. It is the sensors and signal conditioning that are the real revolution. The late Jim Williams designed a scale so accurate it can measure your heartbeat (Fig 11). So a buddy of his quit Apple and did a startup where you put a pad under your mattress and it measures your heart-rate while you sleep. Once the embedded system gets the data, you can send it wirelessly to your TV or your phone or to the cloud cloud cloud. To think the iPhone is central to this is like thinking the box on your wall is the central part of making a TV program.

What is fascinating to me is how things just seem to work out. We will need storage for all this, and how convenient that Hitachi Data Systems, where my buddy Fowler used to work, makes boxes full of spinners that will hold all this information. In fact, when considering the cloud cloud cloud, it occurred to me that the suitable analogy is electricity production. Data is good. Electricity is good. We used to have a little generator in the basement. We used to have a little server in the basement. That was a pain, so we moved all the generators and servers to one central location. All that the cloud cloud cloud is doing is combining all the little generators into one big one, something the electricity people did 100 years ago. Soon the data people will go back to the mainframe, since why do all this dynamic load balancing across 5000 machines when you can do it across 50? And this is the great brilliant progress of our modern age. Indeed the cloud cloud cloud is almost irrelevant to the user. I don’t care if Dreamhost has one machine or a million, as long as they send out the pages quickly. The cloud cloud cloud helps that to a point, but it also lessens reliability and adds overhead. We live in wondrous times.

While stuffing blades into a web server and dynamically balancing them is neat, of far more interest to me is the embedded world. Here there is a delightful design challenge, getting low power to balance with high performance. My programmer pal John Haggis was showing off his Omron blood pressure monitor the other day;

Omron-IntelliSense_eFlea-breakfast

This Omron blood pressure monitor can take your vitals in less than a minute.

The next task will be to connect the monitor to you phone via Bluetooth or Wi-fi. Now your phone can send the data up to the internet where it can be stored, analyzed, and shared with your doctor. You can envision the network effects taking hold, where your blood pressure results will dynamically modify the shopping list at your grocery store. If your blood pressure is low enough, maybe you can have some salty snacks this week. Keep it low and you might get a rebate on your health or life insurance. If your blood pressure shoots up the IoT can correlate it to that restaurant where you had a meal that caused it.

 

Atmel’s SAM4L at the Colorado School of Mines

Analog aficionado and Linear Systems marketing maven Tim McCune saw some of our cool ARM Cortex M4-based SAM4L-EK demo kits at the last Analog Aficionados party. Turns out his son Clark just entered the Colorado School of Mines and Tim thought his son could learn a lot from the kit. This is the same kit that Atmel is featuring in its 2014 Tech on Tour training, where we drive a giant 18-wheeler truck onto your campus or company and then do training or product demos.

Atmel-Tech-on-Tour-Trailer

The Atmel Tech on Tour mobile trailer is available to drive to your location and conduct training for employees or students.

So I wangle a couple kits from Atmel events director Donna Castillo and sent them off to Clark. In addition to the ARM Cortex M4-based SAM4-EK, the training bundle had an AT86RF233 Xplained Pro wireless board and an 10-pin XPRO adapter PCB. This allows the SAM4 Xplained pro to take the RF board.

Tim reported the kits were a big hit:

“The kits arrived last Friday, before the three-day weekend, which was a great morale-booster for Clark. He was stuck there with not much to do, most of his friends were at home or skiing. Figuring out how to fire up the kits and start working in C was pretty fun. And when his classmates started drifting back he had the coolest new toys on the hall.”

Clark-McCune_Colorado-School-of-Mines_Atmel-SAM4

Clark McCune and pal fires up the Atmel SAM4-EK at the Colorado School of Mines.

 

Clark-McCune_Colorado-School-of-Mines_Atmel-SAM4_close

Here Clark McCune has both SAM4-EK kits at the ready, with the one hooked to the computer also sporting the AT86RF233 wireless board that comes with the Tech on Tour training.

SAM4L-EK_for-clark

Here are the kits I sent Clark McCune. The Tech on Tour training will get you up to speed on ARM Cortex M4 programming as well as wireless connectivity.

SAM4L-EK_unboxed

The SAM4L-EK has a board and a ton of cables including the micro-USB ones you will need to power the board.

SAM4L-EK_displays

Both displays have a protective film over them, so be sure to peel them off to get the best appearance.

SAM4L-EK_slider

Right out of the box the board is programmed to read the slider on the bottom right side. The number “104” changes in proportion to your finger posing. Note the smaller power consumption display above the main one. The L in SAM4L stands for low power, so Atmel includes a power monitor right on the board.

SAM4L-EK_jumpers

We also include the jumpers, just set off to the side, so you don’t have to hunt any down from your old Windows 95 add-in cards.

SAM4L-EK_with-RF

Here is the SAM4L set up with the AT86RF233 Xplained Pro wireless board and an 10-pin XPRO adapter PCB. I hope Clark had them in the right way because I just copied what he had in his picture.

SAM4L-EK_full-power

Here is a close-up of the power monitor display. With the programs running full-bore, you can see the board is using 1.92 mA, but the firmware is nice enough to tell you it is using 159μA/MHz.

SAM4L-EK_backup-power

Press pushbutton PB0 and the board kicks into standby, where the PCB only draws 66μA. Sorry for the shaky camera, the display is sharp as a tack.

SAM4L-EK_into-backup-power

Speaking of shaky camera work, I tried to press the PB0 pushbutton and snap a pic at the same time, so you can see the little display on the SAM4L-EL work like a tiny oscilloscope, showing the power consumption dropping from 2mA to 69μA.

SAM4L-EK_outof-backup-power

And finally, another shaky camera shot of the SAM4L-EK returning to full power mode.

What is really cool about the little power monitor is that it does show transient events, like when the code services an interrupt and returns to low-power mode. Oh, I forgot to show the back of the PCB, here is a shot:

SAM4L-EK_backside

The back of the SAM4L-EK has more chips, I assume to run the debugger and such. Note the nice clear rubber feet to keep the pins from scratching your desk.

This is such a well-done kit, and if you want to get on the ARM bandwagon, it is a perfect way to learn. Better yet, with the RF board it gets you familiar with the Internet of Things (IoT) applications the whole world is hungering for. So check out the Tech on Tour training and feel free to badger you local Atmel rep or FAE to bring the ToT mobile trailer to your school or company.

interview-icon-mcuwireless-atmel-magnus

1:1 Interview with Magnus Pedersen of Atmel

TV: What do you do? How are you contributing to the realization and maturation of the Internet of Things (IoT)?

Atmel-MCU-Wireless-Magnus-Pedersen

Magnus Pedersen with the Philips Hue (a connected IoT enabled smart device). The Philips Hue Wireless Light Bulb promises full control of its functions over Wi-Fi, including per-light brightness and color settings, remote operation and geofencing capabilities. In addition, Philips includes a powerful GUI-driven app to custom tune lighting in nearly any environment.

MP:  I am currently working on new ultra low power wireless devices and systems compliant with the IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which supports wireless applications such as ZigBee and IPv6/6LoWPAN. Providing standards based reference designs and implementation helps our customers bring IoT devices quickly to the market.

TV: What products do you see becoming the potential glue for Internet of Things embedded designs?

MP: IoT in my mind is all about connectivity and there is a major trend towards wireless. There are many standards competing for designs in the IoT space, but I believe low power solutions like ZigBee, Bluetooth Smart and Wi-Fi will grab the lion share of the market for IoT devices.

TV: What are some of the challenges in building out MCU Wireless and Wireless/RF enabled devices to support enterprise initiatives?

MP: The primary challenge is the lack of standards for the upper layers, and to some extent, lack of infrastructure and gateways to gather data from the IoT devices – bringing the data back into the enterprise servers for analysis.

TV: What’s your favorite MCU wireless device and why?

MP: My current favorite is Atmel’s ultra low power family of wireless microcontrollers. It’s single die design, offering a high level of integration. Plus, it is designed with ultra low power consumption in mind. The ATmegaRFR2 family is quickly grabbing market share in some relatively new markets like wireless lighting control. Major players are putting a lot of efforts into ZigBee Light Link compliant systems these days.

AT256RFR2-EK

AT256RFR2-EK

TV: Can you think of a reference design and various other solution sets that have helped a customer realize his or her vision of embedded architecture and design? Specifically, one that meets all design and BOM requirements – while also exceeding quality and maximizing in B2B as well as customer end to end satisfaction?

MP: Atmel has been active in the ZigBee community for many years. We have certified ZigBee Stacks and referenced implementations for firmware and hardware that we are sharing with our customers. We have a very open policy to share source code, and we are even sharing our hardware design files for our customers to use, either as is, or modified to customer needs. This way, customers can leverage years of R&D that have already been invested in the reference designs – all while moving efficiently through evaluation, prototyping and actual products ready for mass-production.

TV: Is there any advice you can offer to our readers who are forced to make tough decisions when it comes to schedule and embedded projects? For designers, architects and manufacturing managers?

MP: Learn from the mistakes of others. You do not have time to make them all yourself! Make sure you engage with suppliers that have been in the game for a while and are willing to share past experiences in terms of hardware, communication stacks and reference designs. Relying on and working with an experienced supplier will save you from some of the traditional pitfalls and challenges in wireless designs.

TV: There are so many standards related to connectivity. I can imagine the early web and many early technology paradigms in similar nascent scenarios. Which protocol and stack do you endorse as the communicator for IoT embedded designs? Does it matter?

MP: I think you’re right – the IoT is still in it’s infancy and there are still quite a few standards competing for the same applications. In the ultra low power domain IPv6/6LoWPAN is promoted by the IPSO Alliance and the ZigBee solutions promoted by the ZigBee Alliance is now fairly mature and ready for prime time. A couple of years ago the smart energy domain was very interesting, but the fastest growth today is within wireless lighting control and home automation. Do a search for “Philips Hue” and you can see some of my favorite applications right now.

TV: IoT refers to connecting literally everything to the Internet. Do you agree with this sentiment? How soon do you think this will become a reality?

MP: Yes – I do agree. And that means we are talking about a set of solutions ranging from handsets and tablets to even smaller embedded and highly specialized devices with years of battery lifetime. We’re even seeing battery-less devices being driven by energy harvesting techniques.

TV: Is the Internet of Things going to be the biggest leverage point for IT as well as valued added chain to many industries? If so, what are some of the business challenges?

MP: IoT represents huge opportunities for existing industries and it will also represent great opportunities for startups to create new business. The latest forecast provided by Gartner indicates that there will be up to 30 billion connected devices by 2020, resulting in  $1.9 trillion in global economic value-add through sales into diverse end markets. Those are big numbers!

TV: Will competing communication standards get into the way of IoT emergence? Does lack of agreement equate to limited economies of scale? Is there a risk associated to choosing the wrong MCU Wireless device?

MP:  I do not think competing standards will create any issues. Some standards will fit better than others, and especially in consumer applications growth will be driven primarily by consumer demand, rather than standardization bodies or organizations. There is an obvious risk for the product vendors tied to this – selecting the wrong standard might prohibit growth and represent a fatal decision for both startups and even established companies.

TV: IoT is obviously about more than just connecting your toaster. What are some some examples for big industries and markets where IoT can bring added value and revenue? Explain at least to a B2B customer point of view for a Fortune 500?

MP: IoT is about making everyday life easier for everyone. It’s about the introduction of the smart home, HVAC and lighting solutions coming online. It’s about alarm systems and doorlocks and cameras – everything coming online. It is also a story about a generation of people being always online, almost to the point of being addicted to internet-access. I recently saw an update to the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs indicating that WiFi access is now becoming the most important requirement, perhaps even more important than food and water. I thought it was funny, but yes, there is probably some sense of truth in this as well – at least for some people.

Figure: Maslow 2.0

Figure: Maslow 2.0

 

It might not fair to give one example of products or companies, but if you look at communities like Kickstarter and search for IoT projects, there are an overwhelming number of ideas and projects.

TV: Is the IoT hype going to mature and actually become mainstream with an unfolding of emergent products that redefine the shape for products and services offered to a company? If so, tell me about some of the challenges and what can be done to make this transition easier?

MP: The IoT hype is going to mature and there will be new businesses in data collection, data transfer and data storage. New businesses will also be build around data analysis of  smartphones and tablet applications.

TV: Have you heard of Amara’s law?  We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run. What are the potentials in the short/long term for Internet of Things as we move forward?

MP: Devices that communicate with each other enable new opportunities. This can be a device(s) within a limited geography or area, while in the longer term these devices will be connected to the cloud and can then be accessed from anywhere.

TV: Describe some of the technology partnerships and reference designs that can act as mentors and education models for engineering teams seeking to revamp/evolve their products into the world of connectivity.

MP: Atmel is involved with numerous partners in the IoT domain. We’ve enjoyed long-term partnerships with standardization bodies such as IETF and IEEE, as well as the ZigBee Alliance. Atmel is also teaming up with marketing organizations such as the IPSO Alliance and The Connected Lighting Alliance. As a silicon vendor, there is also a need for additional resources at the application level and even hardware reference designs. Over the past few years, we’ve teamed with companies like MeshNetics in the ZigBee domain (their IP was acquired by Atmel in 2008), and Seninode for their embedded IPv6/6LoWPAN solutions. (Sensinode was recently acquired by ARM). A general goal is to provide complete reference designs for both hardware and firmware in order speed the design process on the customer side, and it is also the general idea that these designs should be available as open source.

TV: What are some of the challenges associated with extending the typical product to a connected product? What are the design constraints and challenges that can be learned from one another?

MP: Atmel recently conducted an IoT survey with our key customers, revealing few technical challenges. The evolving standards enable new businesses, but it also broadens the competition.

TV: What sort of recommendations and technical advice do you offer to help core engineering teams and architects build highly connective products that can be designed and produced in the  highest quality and lowest BOM available?


MP:
Being responsible for the low power wireless product line in Atmel, we’re bringing out standard compliant wireless solutions including RF transceivers, wireless microcontrollers, communication stack and profiles, and even certified hardware reference designs to kickstart customer projects and bring them quickly to market.

TV: What are you currently working on and most excited about?


MP:
As a marketeer for a large microcontroller and touch company, I have the opportunity to engage with products and solutions that are going to be introduced in the near future. Products that don’t exist yet – I find that part very exciting

TV: Are there any people or books that have inspired you lately?

MP: Steve Jobs. It is really amazing how he created killer products and applications, even thought we didn’t know that we wanted or needed them. The iMac, iPod, iPhone, iPad, and the Apps-store… Steve changed the world of handsets from Nokia/Blackberry dominance to the handsets as we know them today. I have also watched the speech he gave for Stanford University graduates back in 2005 many times. Steve Jobs urged the students to pursue their dreams and see the opportunities in life’s setbacks — including death itself. I think this was a really great speech in the sense that he asks us to think about what we really want to achieve in life, knowing that death is the only destiny we all share – no one has ever escaped it.

TV: How can we establish and negotiate technological priorities? In a world of limited bandwidth, the growth in connectivity will challenge our current network capacity to cope with data. We need a better way of understanding which services should be prioritized. For example, how can we make sure vital medical data or pluggable Internet of Things devices aren’t slowed by streaming and IoT enabled loose end points?

MP: I wouldn’t be too worried about this. Network capacity will continue to scale and various security mechanisms will deal with priorities and separate the vital networks and applications from the less critical ones.

TV: How can we take a long-term perspective on services and objects? We currently design for beginnings – getting people connected and tied into a system. How can we make sure people end relationships with service providers as easily? As more big-ticket items become connected (cars, fridges etc) and are sold on to new owners and users, this becomes increasingly important.

MP: As “things” becomes connected more and more consumers will make use of the new applications and systems. Ease of use and the willingness to change will be the keys. The consumers are a challenging set of customers as they will not accept systems and application not stable enough or easy to use. Companies offering such products will simply fail.

TV: How can we balance aspirations for the IoT with the reality of what it will be able to deliver? There are strong tensions between the aspirations and our vision of a technological future and the pragmatics of our everyday lives.

MP: I do not agree to the statement that there are strong tensions. We see enormous activity from entrepreneurs in the IoT space these days, and yet I think that this is just the very early beginning of a new mega-trend in the industry, as well as applications and services being provided to the consumers. Some of these ideas will fly and become great products, others will fail. And again, I think the consumers will be the judges when it becomes to the decision of what will be a success story and what will fail.

TV: Who represents who? Who stands up for, educates, represents and lobbies for people using the IoT or connected products? Is this the role of people centered designers? As a product extraordinaire, how can you help companies bring Internet of Things devices or connected smart products to life?

MP: That’s a really good question! With the indications I already mentioned from the analysts, (predicting a $1.9 trillion market in 2020), there are many groups and communities scratching their heads trying to figure out how to get their piece of this big pie. Some of the drive will come from the industry promoting their technology, but there will also be IoT solutions being demanded and pushed for by the consumers themselves.

TV: Who are the people using it? How do we define the communities and circles that use each product and their relationship to each other?

MP: As with most new products and solutions, quite a number of initiatives will be rolled out in high end products first. Some solutions are maybe more the limited audience of tech-freaks, but IoT is rapidly becoming a reality in everyones lives.

TV: What can we learn about IoT in everyday business communication, product design and product emergence?

MP: IoT opens up a huge space of new solutions, systems and products. We will move into a world of smarter devices, where the devices themselves are capable of communicating with other IoT devices. Some of these devices will even make decisions to interact with and control other devices without any input from human beings. Just look at the car-industry. High end cars are now able to park without a driver, they can position themselves in the lane, keep distance from the vehicle in front, and we’re about to get a fleet of cars that are able to communicate with each other, making decisions on our behalf. Some cars are also equipped with systems for automated emergency calls and even report the exact position it is calling from. These are examples of systems already available. Given the fact that the devices are connected they can also be reprogrammed to change behavior without any need for major hardware updates. This offers flexibility in design and helps keeps the platform up to date before a new hardware product design cycle needs to be kicked-off.

TV: How does rapid prototyping help drive new product developments and how does it fit with a people-centric or customer-centric methodology? How can government nurture efficiencies or disruption? Is it their role to help adopt innovation for the end customer?

MP: Rapid prototyping enables shorter development cycles, but it can also be used to spin multiple prototypes quickly to test various options and product configurations. This way you can execute modifications and changes early in the development stage and avoid costly redesigns at a later stage. This might represent the difference between a project failure and a successful product. Personally, I think governments should play an active role in innovation, making sure startups and even established companies have an environment where they can achieve sustainable growth. In the past we’ve even seen governments actively funding IoT projects during economic downturns, like what US government did back in 2009 – feeding hundreds of billion of dollars to the industry in order to create new jobs. Some of these funds went into smart energy projects rolling out smart meters as we have already seen in California.

TV: How can we track “Things” and what will this tell us about their use?

MP: There are a number of ways to track “things,” ranging from traditional GPS technology to various methods of range measurements and triangulation algorithms. This provides useful information about the device, or its owner, and can be used in many ways. I already mentioned automated emergency calls reporting a vehicle’s position, but the number of applications benefiting from location (positioning) services is really unlimited. From the retail industry for example, we see an increased demand for such services in connection to targeted commercials for each and every customer, as well as monitoring customer behavior in a shopping mall to maximize sales.

TV: What are the new interfaces and dashboards that will help people to interact with the IoT? How important will the distinction be between devices equipped with a screen (touch, etc) and those without? How does this play a role in the latest features of Atmel’s microcontrollers and microprocessors?

MP: User interfaces are extremely important. These interfaces have quickly evolved from traditional button and screens, to the touchscreen technology as we know it today. Touch screens and their related applications and user interfaces has proven very easy and intuitive to use, so it is quickly becoming the de-facto standard. This is obviously also the reason why Atmel as a company has invested heavily in touch technology over the last few years, ranging from capacitive buttons, sliders and wheels, to small and large touch screens. As more and more products utilize this technology, capacitive touch technology is rapidly becoming a standard building block in all Atmel microcontrollers.

TV: Who should ask where potential pain is in the business innovation belt? Is it the designer or business manager, or both?  Do we create value and value chains that reward creators or just end user customers? How can the designer and product creativity map to microcontroller functionality and capabilities?

MP: I think this needs to be reviewed by all parties involved. Innovation is an interactive process involving everyone from the designer to the consumer. Good products will also create value for everyone involved in the process – from the design kickoff until there is a finished product in the hands of the consumer. Selecting Atmel as a design partner ensures access to a family of microcontrollers capable of scaling in terms of resources and peripherals such as wireless connectivity and touch enabled user interfaces. It is a very important strategy for Atmel to be positively aligned with the customer when defining roadmaps and the next generation of microcontrollers. The only way we can make sure we have the right technology available at the right time is to define our future roadmaps in close cooperation with our customers.

The Internet of things, stalk by stalk

The Internet of things (IoT) will enable profound improvements in productivity

Bob Dible is an engineer that now works on his family farm in Kansas. He describes the technological strides made in agriculture. “We generate GPS (global positioning system) yield maps using data from the combine as it harvests. That helps us determine what nutrients are needed the next season at various parts of our 4-square-mile farm. We then program those different nutrient mixes and locations onto the crop sprayer aircraft. As the crop sprayer flies over the field, it uses GPS to locate itself.” The airplane sprays out nutrients or pesticides based on the GPS programming. It dynamically changes the mix of fertilizer based on its location over the field.

The $900,000 Air Tractor model 802 has 1300hp and a payload of 9,249 lbs. In 2013 the plane can change its fertilizer mix every dozen meters. Dible, the former engineer, knows what is coming. “One day we will monitor and grow the corn on a stalk-by-stalk basis. When we plant crops, GPS with RTK (Real Time Kinematics) gives us 1-inch accuracy.” It’s not hard to see Dible’s vision even now. With today’s technology, a small autonomous robot could drive down the rows of wheat (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. A team from the Robotics and Cybernetics Research Group (Technical University of Madrid) has built an experimental farm robot they dubbed the Rosphere.

Sensors on the robot could monitor each and every stalk of corn. Those robots can communicate with each other over a mesh network. A mesh network is like a chat room for gizmos. They identify themselves and their capabilities, and are then a shared resource.

But the real enabling technology is when we put all these mesh networks on the Internet. This is the so-called Internet of Things (IoT). If the robots that evaluate your individual stalks of wheat have a port to the Internet, you get a cascading set of benefits. The server computer on a farm can store and manipulate the corn stalk information. But it can also analyze those crop yields. And it might contact Monsanto’s computers to get the best price and delivery on fertilizers, seeds, and pesticides.

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Figure 2. The tractor on the Dible farm, similar to this one, represents a capital investment of almost one million dollars.

The farm’s server computer can contact and execute automated negotiation with several silos in the area, to insure you get the best price for the crop. The tractor Bob uses on the farm has GPS as well (Figure 2). “GPS has really taken over in the past decade in farming. Not only do aerial sprayers use GPS, but we use GPS to spray with ground sprayers such as the John Deer 4720.”

One day ground sprayers will share information with the farm’s server computer. And that server can go on the Internet to order parts, or schedule maintenance on the mechanic’s smart phone while re-scheduling the driver’s time. Already the nearby dairy farm’s newest tractors and loaders “talk” to John Deere’s and Caterpillar’s local dealers.  “The dealers know where the machinery is, how it is running, and when it needs service,” reports Dible.

Perhaps your mesh network of corn examination robots finds a particularly virulent pest or fungus. They could go on the Internet and notify all the farms around yours, as well as the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). Perhaps you’re a cattle rancher. You use RFID (radio frequency identification tags) on each cow. Foreign countries might embargo your beef if any cases of Mad Cow disease strike anywhere else in your country. But with individual identification of the cattle, you can prove their provenance, and if your tracking systems are linked to the Internet, your sales to foreign markets will continue unimpeded.

Mesh network antecedents

There are antecedents for the mesh network and the Internet of things. In the 1970’s the American military was bedeviled by North Vietnam soldiers using the Ho-Chi-Minh trail to bring supplies south to support the war effort.

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Figure 3. A patent filed in 1971 and granted in 1976 put vibration sensors into radio darts that could be dropped from aircraft.

So the Navy invented small darts that had seismometers inside (Figure 3, Reference 1). These darts could detect footsteps and vehicle traffic and communicated over a radio network. They formed a literal mesh, and although they did not connect to the yet-to-be-invented Internet, they did report to an overarching communications network.

The Mesh in space

The military benefits of a sensor mesh hooked to a network were apparent to people in the science and space communities. NASA Airborne Science operates a fleet of aircraft that can communicate with orbiting satellites (Reference 2). In 2004 NASA started missions that would allow the satellites, the aircraft, and ground stations to interact and communicate over a network. This lets NASA better track and understand hurricanes, polar ice conditions and other changing geophysical events. The real-time knowledge of events is an obvious improving, but a system like this also gives real-time knowledge of itself. Researchers might schedule a mission and only after the planes had landed did they see that the data form a sensor was corrupt of missing. Equally frustrating, they might not have seen that there was an event of interest they could have included in the mission if they only could follow it as the data was taken.

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Figure 4. NASA uses the Global Hawk drone in a network of satellites and ground stations (courtesy Wikipedia).

The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has made this NASA “network of things” even more useful. Now the operation of the Global Hawk UAV can be moderated and maintained by the network (Figure 4). While not the canonical “Internet of Things”, the NASA network, dubbed NASDAT (NASA Airborne Science Data Acquisition and Transmission) is an Ethernet network just like the Internet.

NASA connecting disparate things together such as airplanes, satellites, instruments, and ground control, presages what the Internet of things will do. With the NASA system, now the airplanes “know” what instruments they are carrying. The instruments in the plane can be fed location, speed, altitude and other flight parameters. The satellites “know” what airplanes and instruments they are connected to and the airplanes “know” what satellites are tasked to its flight. Missions can be far more dynamic and opportunistic. If ground controllers detect some condition or location, the instruments and airplanes can interact and modify the mission to get some important data collected. Flights can be changed in mid-mission by ground control, and all the varied implications will be “understood” by the interconnected instruments, airplanes, satellites, and people.

The Internet lets a mesh network see the future

The power of communications between networks is just one aspect that the IoT can do. Sprinklers are another application close to the hearts of farmers. Having sprinklers on a mesh network brings benefits. For instance, the network nodes that mount on the sprinkler could control and monitor water flow. They could report back to the farm server computer on usage and maintenance problems that reduce water flow. The mesh could even measure rainfall and adjust water delivery accordingly. The system becomes even more potent when you connect it to the internet. Now the farmer’s water system can connect to weather services that predict the rainfall. That way the sprinklers won’t waste water irrigating immediately before a big rainfall.

Industry Leads the Way

Industrial sprinkler systems for farms have led the way (Figure 5).

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Figure 5. Crop irrigation systems have hundreds of microcontrollers in them. Now they will be linked to the Internet (courtesy Wikipedia).

Carl Giroux works for electronics distributor Avnet as a technical account manager selling into the sprinkler manufacturers. He estimates that a typical farm sprinkler setup boasts over 300 MCUs (microcontroller units), or about one MCU per sprinkler nozzle.

While industrial sprinklers for farms are already connected, they are a glimpse into what will become available for consumers. Ugmo makes a sprinkler system that is suited to golf courses and expensive homes (Figure 6).

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Figure 6. The UgMO sprinker system measures ground moisture and adapts the water usage.

It has a network of moisture sensors that communicate over RF links to monitor and adjust water usage (Reference 3). This wireless sensor network can reduce you water usage 50%. With the constant cost reductions in electric products, you can bet this system will find use in more and more homes. You can also see how the next step is to connect this system to the Internet so home owners can get the same benefits as farmers and commercial installations.

The IoT helps consumers

Consumers will benefit the most from IoT.

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Figure 7. This older pedometer uses sophisticated electronics to evaluate your motion and connects to your PC with a USB port. Future devices will wirelessly connect to the Internet (courtesy Wikipedia).

Dave Mathis is a software consultant in Silicon Valley. He advises his overweight friends to buy a pedometer, to keep track of how much walking they do (Figure 7). “Don’t get a 5-dollar pedometer— the sensor is a little ball and spring, like the tilt mechanism in a pin-ball machine,” he warns. “Get the 50-dollar pedometer.” Mathis notes the expensive pedometers use accelerometers, like a video game controller. These are much more accurate in counting your steps and level of activity. It’s only fitting that you would spend more money for something that helps keep you healthy. Of all the machines and gizmos you own, your body is the most important. Your automobile has millions of lines of software and dedicated hardware to monitor its condition. Your body deserve as much.

It’s nice if your pedometer can connect with your treadmill. That way the treadmill can adapt its routine to how much walking or running you have already done. Its better when your pedometer can communicate to your phone. Now the phone can tabulate and record your progress, and remind you when you lag. But it is a whole new opportunity when your pedometer can go on the Internet. Now your progress can go on your Facebook page. When you lag, your friends might send a tweet or email or even call you on a telephone to remind you to not give up. The exercise information from your pedometer might go to your doctor or pharmacy. That way they can adjust the dosages of medication based on your level of activity.

It’s pretty obvious that the industrial farm is leading the way for consumer technology. We can dream when auto makers talk about autonomous cars that drive themselves. But this is already reality on a farm. Dible notes that the tractors and combines use GPS to control steering. “This relieves the operator from having to concentrate on driving. It allows closer monitoring of the equipment which helps lessen mistakes.” Between seed technology, special fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, new methods, and improved control, farming is changing as fast as any other high-tech endeavor.  But it is also like working on an engineering program – lots of long hours, and attention to details. “The only thing about being an engineer is that you spend your time solving other people’s problems.  Now I have to solve my own problems,” quips Dible.

The IoT means safer roads

Already legislative bodies are having automakers look at having connected automobiles to provide for safer roads (Reference 4). The NTSB (National Traffic Safety Board) knows that having vehicles communicate with each other will help reduce fatalities. This technology might first be applied to trucks and busses. But the benefits are obvious for all vehicles. Even motorcyclists will benefit from connected vehicles (Reference 5). Every year, thousands of motorcyclist die or get injured because the other driver did not see them. With connected vehicles the motorcycle can have the car warn the driver of an impending collision. Autos might even simulate the noise of a motorcycle in the surround-sound audio system in the car, to help call attention to the motorcycle.

Having the vehicles talk to each other is just the first step, similar to an occasional dynamic mesh network. When the vehicles can go on the Internet, it brings all the same beneficial network effects. You can collect, organize and share data worldwide. This might be anonymous data, to alert highway engineers of a dangerous intersection. Or maybe you will use the data to automatically lower your car insurance rates, since you have so few near-accidents on the road. There will be no need to worry about telling your teenager to drive safety. The car will do that for you, and even take the keys away if he is being reckless.

The IoT in your home

All this industrial and automotive technology is poised to leap into the consumer electronics world. We are on the cusp of an interconnected revolution. Gary Shapiro is President and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA). He recently wrote an article about smart homes (Reference 6). He notes that the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and HGTV (Home and Garden Television) have partnered to build the first-ever high-tech smart home (Figure 8).

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Figure 8. The HGTV Smart Home 2013 is intimately linked to the Internet and its own devices (courtesy HGTV).

“The HGTV Smart Home 2013 connects many of the home’s appliances and devices,” notes Shapiro. The outdoors has pool automation that controls lighting, temperature, and fountains from a tablet. You can operate the exterior awnings remotely on demand, but they also include sensors that automatically close the awning to protect against rain and wind. The garage door sends an alert to a smart phone when a door is left open, and families can control the home’s door locks remotely. The occupants can remotely program pre-set temperatures for the shower. The window shades are also connected, and you can raise or lower them remotely.

The Internet of Things will not only let each of these devices communicate to you, it will let them communicate with each other. That way, opening the window shades might cause the microcontroller running the shade to communicate to the air conditioner, to make sure the house stays comfortable with sunlight streaming into the rooms.

Shapriro notes “Who knows, we might surpass the The Jetsons, and the consumer electronics industry might revolutionize the concept of smart living altogether.”  If Dible’s farm can monitor and care for each stalk of corn, it’s not hard to see that our homes and cars will monitor and care for each of their occupants. The Internet of things is ready to let us make another great stride in human progress.

References

1 Theodore C. Herring, A. Reed 3rd Edgar “Acoustic and seismic troop movement detector.”  Patent US3984804 A. 29 Nov 1971.

2 Forgione, Joshua B, Sorneson, Carl, Bahl, Amit, “Network Interface Links Sensor-Web Instruments,” NASA Tech Briefs, pg 14, July 2013. http://ntbpdf.techbriefs.net/2013/NTB0713.pdf

3 http://www.appliancedesign.com/articles/93619-eid-gold-ugmo-ug1000

4 http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/07/23/19643634-ntsb-calls-for-wireless-technology-to-let-all-vehicles-talk-to-each-other

5 http://www.americanmotorcyclist.com/blog/13-06-27/DC_Insider_Vehicle-to-vehicle_communication_technology_is_coming_%E2%80%93_What_does_it_mean_for_motorcyclists.aspx

6 http://www.appliancedesign.com/articles/93643-association-report-cea-smart-living

Analyst Patrick Moorhead talks IoT

The rapidly evolving Internet of Things (IoT) is clearly an idea whose time has finally come. Indeed, falling technology costs, developments in complementary fields like mobile and cloud, together with support from governments have all contributed to the dawning of an IoT “quiet revolution.”

In fact, over three-quarters of companies are now actively exploring or using the IoT, with the vast majority of business leaders believing it will have a meaningful impact on how their companies conduct business. In a recent report sponsored by ARM, Clint Witchalls confirms that consumers will likely soon be awash with IoT-based products and services – even if they may not realize it.

Commenting on the Witchalls report in Forbes, analyst Patrick Moorhead notes that business leaders seem to be highly optimistic about the IoT and its ability to transform their business, either by driving new sources of revenue or by making operations more efficient.

“This is a good sign that leaders think they can make more money and save more money. It isn’t often that you can find both of these together,” he explains. “The [Witchall report] also shows that most companies are investing in IoT right now, but most are just researching what they can do with it versus planning, piloting, or implementing projects.”

So how far are we along the continuum from early adoption to mass adoption?

Well, 95% of those surveyed in the above-mentioned ARM report say they believe their companies will be using IoT in three years.

“While most in surveys are optimistic, this is a huge number when you think of it, even if, in reality, it’s four to five years,” Moorhead notes. “While I think 95% is overly-aggressive, this would be as pervasive as a smartphone or a personal computer use.”

Interestingly, Moorhead splits the concept of IoT into two distinct segments: the Industrial IoT (IIoT) and the Human (HIoT).

“The IIoT brings autonomous monitoring and operations capability to factory boilers, HVAC systems, and hospital medical systems,” he says. “IIoT systems are very high availability and companies like General Electric GE  and Echelon ELON play in this space. The HIoT comprise of more interactive, consumer-based devices like a FitBit, Revolv Hub and a Nest Thermostat. ARM, the study sponsor, obviously plays heavily in both the IIoT and the HIoT.”

Interested in learning more? The full text of the Forbes article can be read here, while the ARM-sponsored Witchalls report is available here.

IoT: A quiet revolution is taking shape

Over three-quarters of companies are now actively exploring or using the Internet of Things (IoT), with the vast majority of business leaders believing it will have a meaningful impact on how their companies conduct business.

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Based on current estimates, the number of “things” predicted to be connected to the Internet by the end of this decade range from a staggering 30bn to 50bn.

Clearly, consumers will likely soon be awash with IoT-based products and services – even if they may not realize it. As Clint Witchalls notes in a recent report sponsored by ARM, data is therefore a fundamental component of the IoT’s future.

Indeed, fitting sensors to a potentially infinite number of “things” will generate untold amounts of new information. However, most business leaders remain confident that their organizations will be capable of managing and analyzing the data flowing from the predicted rapid expansion in IoT networks. The solution will be finding an acceptable balance that does not slow the system down to the extent that it becomes unworkable. This is obviously a challenge for organizations, but one that is surmountable.

“There is this very simple equation that we’ve learnt,” explains Elgar Fleisch, the deputy dean of ETH Zürich. “People will use a technology if the perceived benefit is larger than the perceived risk. As long as the perceived benefit is bigger, people don’t worry as much about the risks.”

To be sure, says Witchalls, the IoT is a quiet revolution that is steadily taking shape. Businesses across the world are piloting the use of the IoT to improve their internal operations and are preparing a stream of IoT-related products and services. Consumers might not (initially) recognize them as such, but that will not stop them from being launched, as few end users need to know that user-based car insurance, for example, is an IoT-based application.

Yet some important unknowns remain, Witchalls acknowledges. Perhaps most importantly, nobody knows what the winning business models are going to be. Even seasoned management consultants will struggle to provide definitive answers. Simply put, it is likely a matter of experimenting with different models to see which ones work.

The main message for latecomers and doubters? Consider the opportunities offered by the IoT—if nothing else than to improve internal operations. To be sure, there is a consensus that companies which are slow to integrate the IoT risk falling behind the competition. As such, the next step for business leaders is to decide what IoT commitments and investments they are ready to make, and where.

Interested in learning more about the rapidly evolving IoT? Part one of this series can be read here, part two herepart three here and part four here.