Tag Archives: RF

Taking the IoT to the next level

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. Clearly, the the IoT is reaching a tipping point.

iotimpact

Although the concept of an Internet of Things has been around for at least a decade, the IoT is beginning to become an important action point for the global business community. As Clint Witchalls notes in a recent report sponsored by ARM, there is no doubt that IoT-related technology is already having a broad impact across the world. Although the precise effect is likely to vary by country and by company, it is hard to imagine any sector will be left untouched by rapidly evolving Internet of Things.

Kevin Ashton who originally coined the term the “Internet of Things” (IoT) in 1999 while working at Proctor & Gamble, points out that the recent “trickle” of IoT product releases is all part of a larger plan to test market appetite.

“We are trying to understand before we get in too deep, because once you are financially invested and committed you cease to become agile. Then you really have to start building on the thing you’ve already invested in,” Ashton explains. “In the early stages of technology deployment it’s a charitable act really to explore a new technology because the return on investment isn’t there, it’s too expensive and it’s too unknown. That’s where government has a role.”

Looking ahead, investment in the IoT should continue to increase as more and more senior executives move up the IoT learning curve. According to Witchalls, the costs associated with the IoT will continue to fall concurrently – just like any nascent technology. Indeed, a number of early adopters believe that the technology is already mature enough and cheap enough to make IoT products and services viable without the need for a big upfront investment, at least for initial trials.

“You don’t need a lot of R&D, it’s more about integration,” says Honbo Zhou, a director of China’s Haier. “Everyone can build it [into their products]. It’s just a matter of finding a business model that works.”

Meanwhile, Elgar Fleisch, the deputy dean of ETH Zürich, a science and technology university, says he believes IoT adoption will be quite different from what he dubs the “Internet of people revolution.”

During the first phase of the Internet, he maintains, anyone with a good idea and a computer could start an organization with global reach. However, Fleisch sees the initial advantage in the “IoT revolution” going mainly to bricks-and mortar organizations, especially large firms with many assets to track and monitor. Meaning, we are unlikely to see another Facebook, Yahoo or eBay.

“There will be winners and losers, but we are unlikely to see entirely new big players entering the market,” Fleisch opines.

Notwithstanding the significant involvement of the physical world of assets and products, the IoT is still expected to be a less visible revolution than the traditional Internet.

“PayPal, Groupon and YouTube are well-known Internet companies, yet few people are probably aware that the smart meter in their cellar means that their home is a part of the IoT,” writes Witchalls. “As organizations move towards the ‘productization’ of the IoT, there are signs that business leaders recognize that this need not be a major hindrance: undeveloped consumer awareness is not seen as one of the top obstacles to organizations using the IoT. After all, consumers will always want products and services that are better, cheaper, greener and more convenient.”

As Ashton notes, “Consumers are not going to demand the Internet of Things. Nobody is going to demand the underlying infrastructure.”

Rather, says Ashton, consumers will demand some value and benefit.

“They’re going to demand a security system that they can control from their smartphone. You don’t go to the end user and talk about the Internet of Things. You go to the end user to talk about benefits,” he adds.

Want to learn more about how the IoT revolution is gathering pace and reaching a tipping point? Part one is available here, part two here, part three here and part four here.

Designing in-home display units with Atmel tech

In-home display (IHD) units play a critical role in helping customers reduce their energy usage by providing relevant stats in real-time. Indeed, IHD units are typically designed to acquire and display information via a sensor with built-in RF and/or PLC. A more effective method? Transmitting information from a smart meter using a home area network.

“IHD units vary in complexity, from simple wall-mounted segment LCD displays, up to battery-operated products with color TFT displays and touchscreens,” an Atmel engineering rep told Bits & Pieces. “Advanced IHDs can display not only consumption information, but energy consumption advice from energy providers. They can also support a variety of additional functions such as home automation.”

To be sure, IHD units typically support displays, connectivity via USB and RF, as well as low power and touch buttons or screens for a fully interactive user interface (UI). And that is why Atmel offers a wide range of versatile microcontrollers (MCUs) for IHDs, from entry-level 8-bit AVRs to a sophisticated ARM9 core with embedded LCD graphics display controllers.

“In short, Atmel’s MCUs help facilitate flexible touch solutions, from buttons and wheels to sophisticated touch-screens, all providing support for a wide range of user interface features and capabilities,” the Atmel engineering rep explained.

“Meanwhile, power line communications (PLC) system-on-a-chip (SoC) solutions with full digital implementation deliver best-in-class sensitivity, high performance and high temperature stability. Plus, our CryptoAuthentication lineup provide a cost-effective, easy-to-implement security solution that is critical for wireless communication between meters and  IHD units.”

In terms of power efficiency, Atmel offers a number of advanced capabilities, including 1 µA watchdog and brown-out, picoPower tech for extended battery life, an event system to allow measurement while CPU is in SLEEP mode, support for true 1.6V operation, low-power RF transceivers for connectivity and the lowest power 32 kHz crystal oscillator (650nA RTC).

“In-house display units can range from a basic segment LCD to a more sophisticated color TFT. Depending on the display choice drivers and required  processing power, the primary microcontroller can be either an entry-level 8- or 32-bit MCU, scaling up to a more powerful embedded MPU with on-chip TFT LCD controller,” the engineering rep added.

“As products become more sophisticated, so will the UI. Atmel touch technology provides robust support for state of the art features such as capacitive touch buttons or a full touchscreen. The communications within the IHD depend on the implemented architecture of the HAN (typically RF or PLC). Of course, wireless connectivity can also be supported via Secure Digital Input Output (SDIO) cards.”

Interested in learning more about designing in-home display units with Atmel tech? Be sure to check out our extensive device breakdown here.

Accessing your vehicle with Atmel

The automotive industry has certainly come a long way since Henry Ford’s Model T first rolled off the assembly line in 1908. To be sure, car (access) keys have radically evolved from the simple, unassuming steel key of yore to acting as the human interface to a vehicle.

Photographed at the Bay State Antique Automobile Club’s July 10, 2005 show at the Endicott Estate in Dedham, MA by Sfoskett

Similarly, Atmel’s automotive portfolio has also rapidly evolved since 1997 when we introduced our very first dedicated car access transmitter.

Indeed, Atmel now offers a wide range of car access devices that are ideal for developing complete system solutions with the highest levels of security and convenience, supporting remote keyless entry, immobilizer, passive entry/go or combi key applications.

“Remember, providing a high level of security is a must for car access applications, something which is also required by insurance companies worldwide,” an Atmel automotive engineering rep told Bits & Pieces.

“And that is why Remote Keyless Entry (RKE) systems combined with immobilizers are standard in nearly all cars today, while passive Entry/Go (PEG) applications offer the ultimate convenience for car users and are well-established in current luxury vehicles.”

Unsurprisingly, such features are increasingly making their way into medium-class cars. To meet these demands, developers require cost-efficient electronic system solutions that support a high level of integration.

As such, Atmel offers a comprehensive line of ICs (RF, LF, Atmel AVR microcontrollers) to create complete car access and remote start systems, along with dedicated RF transmitters, receivers and transceivers, as well as microcontrollers.

atmelcaraccessdiagram1

In addition, Atmel enables a uni-directional RF link for the keyless entry function to open or lock the doors. The immobilizer system is built with a bi-directional LF link operating with the AUT64 crypto algorithm.

And last, but certainly not least, Atmel supports a bi-directional RF link for the RKE function as well as for the extremely secure duplex RF link in a Passive Entry Go system. The lF link is used for the wake- up channel in a PEG system and the immobilizer function to start the RF communication.

atmelcaraccessdiagram2

Interested in learning more about Atmel’s expansive automotive portfolio? Be sure to check out some of our related blog posts from earlier this week, including “A closer look at Atmel’s vehicle portfolio,” “Atmel expands MaXTouch auto lineup,” and “LIN networking for the automotive masses.”

An introduction to Kevin Ashton’s recent IoT keynote

Recently, a number of industry heavyweights have taken a keen interest in the Internet of Things (IoT). Essentially, the IoT involves various nodes collectively generating a tremendous amount of data.  We know there is a strong emphasis now for the “Things being connected”.  In a small scale, a Formula 1 constructor such as McLaren uses a cluster of sensor nodes to transmit vital telemetry from the pit crew to garage, then to race engineers and ultimately back to R & D centers. During the races, this all happens in realtime. Of course, the customer in this scenario is the driver and engineering team – converging machine logs and other relevant data to ensure a vehicle runs at optimal speed.  During the races, this happens realtime; converging decisive machine log and digital data together to formulate decisive actions toward minor setting adjustments; this results in balancing the force of physics to the engine and car to produce fractions of a competitiveness in seconds.  This equates to a win in the race and competitiveness on the circuit.  Comparatively as a smaller micro-verse, this is the world of Industrial Internet and Internet of Things.

Now let’s imagine this same scenario, albeit on a global scale. Data gathered at crucial “pressure points” can be used to optimize various processes for a wide variety of applications, scaling all the way from consumer devices to manufacturing lines. To be sure, an engine or critical component like a high efficiency diesel Spark Plug is capable of transmitting information in real-time to dealerships and manufacturers, generating added value and increasing consumer confidence in a brand.

Sounds like such a scenario is years away? Not really, as this is already happening with GE and other larger Fortune 500s. Then again, there are still many frontiers to continually innovate. Similar to aviation, its more about building smarter planes, rather than aspiring to a revolution in design. Meaning, building planes capable of transmitting data and implementing actions in real-time due to evolved processes, automation and micro-computing.

Likewise, applications combined with embedded designs also yield improved output. Given the multitude of various mixed and digital signals, efficiency and computing quality factors also play vital roles in the larger system. The GE jet engine featured in one particular plane has the ability to understand 5,000 data samples per second. From larger systems down to the micro embedded board level, it’s all a beautiful play of symphony, akin to the precision of an opera. To carry the analogy further, the main cast are the architects and product extraordinaires who combine intelligent machine data, application logic, cloud and smartly embedded designs to achieve the effect of an autonomous nervous system.

Remember, there are dependencies across the stack and layers of technology even down to the byte level. This helps planes arrive at their destination with less fuel – and keeps them soaring through the sky, taking you wherever you want to go. Ultimately, a system like this can save millions, especially when you take into account the entire fleet of aircraft. It is truly about leveraging intelligent business – requiring connectivity states concerted in a fabric of communication across embedded systems. Clearly, the marriage of machine data and operational use-cases are drawing closer to realization.

“When you’ve got that much data, it had better be good. And reducing the CPU cycles cuts energy use, especially important in applications that use energy harvesting or are battery powered. And that is why Atmel offers a wide range of products mapping to more than the usual embedded design ‘digital palette’ of IoT building blocks. The market needs illustrations and further collaboration; diagrams that show what plays where in the IoT and who covers what layers,” says Brian Hammill, Sr. Atmel Staff Field Applications Engineer.

“Something like the OSI model showing that we the chip vendors live and cover the low level physical layer and some cover additional layers of the end nodes with software stacks. Then, at some point, there is the cloud layer above the application layer in the embedded devices where data gets picked up and made available for backend processing. And above that, you have pieces that analyze, correlate, store, and visualize data and groups of data. Showing exactly where various players (Atmel, ARM mbed (Sensinode), Open Platform for IoT, Ayla Networks, Thingsquare, Zigbee, and other entities and technology) exist and what parts of the overall IoT they cover and make up.”

Atmel offers a product line that encompasses various products that give rise to high end analog to digital converter features.  For example in Atmel’s SAM D20 an ARM based Cortex-M0+, the hardware averaging feature facilitates oversampling.  Oversampling produces sample rates at high resolution.  The demand for high resolution sampling runs congruent to many real-world sensor requirements.  In the world of engineers and the origin of the embedded designs, achieving lean cost by ensuring no extra software overhead – competitive with benefits.  In the design and mass fulfillment of millions of components and bill of materials used to create a multi-collage of global embedded systems, there exist strong ledger point of view – even for engineers, designers, architects, and manufacturing managers.  Ultimately, augment business line directives to fullest ROI.  Expanding the design/experience envelope, Atmel microcontrollers have optimized power consumption.  Brian Hammill concurs, “Atmel offers several MCU families with performance under 150 microamperes/MHz (SAM4L has under 90 uA/MHz, very low sleep current, and flexible power modes that allow operation with good optimization between power consumption, wakeup sources, wakeup time, and maintaining processor resource and memory.”

Geographically, there seems to be a very strong healthcare pull for IoT in Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and this follows into Finland and other parts of Asia as well as described in Rob van Kragenburg’s travels of IoT in Shanghai and Wuxi. Therein lies regional differences mixed with governance and political support. It is also very apparent that Europe and Asia place an important emphasis on IoT initiatives.

Elsewhere, this is going to happen from bottom-up (groups akin to Apache, Eclipse for the early web, open source, and IDE, and now IoT-A, IoT Forum) in conjunction with top-down (Fortune 500’s) across the span of industry. But first, collaboration must occur to work out the details of architecture, data science and scalability. This is contingent on both legacy systems and modern applications synchronizing and standardizing in the frameworks conceived by open and organizing bodies (meant to unify and standardize) such as IoT-A and IoT-I. Indeed, events like IoT-Week in Helsinki bring together thought leaders, technologist and organizations – all working to unify and promote IoT architecture, IP and cognitive technologies, as well as semantic interoperability.

In the spirit of what is being achieved by various bodies collaborating in Helsinki, Brian Hammill asserts: “The goal of a semiconductor company used to be to provide silicon. Today it is more as we need development tools as well as software stacks. The future means we need also to provide the middleware or some for of interoperability of protocols so that what goes in between the embedded devices and the customers’ applications. I think an IoT Toolkit achieves that in its design.  Atmel also offers 802.15.4 radios, especially the differentiation of the Sub-GHz AT86RF212B versus other solutions that have shorter range and require and consume more power.

We also must provide end application tools for demonstration and testing, which can then serve as starter applications for customers to build upon.”

There will be large enterprise software managing data in the IoT. Vendors such as SAS are providing applications at the top end to manage and present  data in useful ways, especially when it comes to national healthcare. Then there are companies which already know how to deal with big data like Google and major metering corporations such as Elster, Itron, Landis+Gyr and Trilliant. Back in the day, meter data management (MDM) was the closest thing to big data because nobody had thought about or cared to network so many devices.

We tend to think of IoT as a stereotype of sorts – forcing an internet-based interaction onto objects. However, it is really trying to configure the web to add functionality for “things,” all while fundamentally protecting privacy and security for a wide range of objects and devices, helping us shift to the new Internet era. Currently, there a number of organizations and standards bodies working to build out official standards (IETF) that can be ratified and put into engineering compliance motion. Really, it’s all starting to come together, as illustrated by the recent IoT Week in Helsinki which is also working to bring Internet of Things together. Here is IoT’s very own original champion, a leader whom has been working toward promoting the Internet of Things (IoT) for 15 years: Kevin Ashton’s opening talk for the Internet of Things Week in Helsinki (video).

iot-week-partners

Remarks at the opening of Third Internet of Things Week, Helsinki, June 17, 2013:

Thank you, and thank you for asking me to speak at the Third Internet of Things Week. I am sorry I can’t be with you in Helsinki. This is a vibrant and growing community of stakeholders. I am proud to have been a part of it for about 15 years now.

One of the most important things that is going to happen this week is the work on IOT-A.  It is really important to have a reference model architecture for the Internet of Things. And one of the reasons is that for most of those 15 years, we’ve been talking about the Internet of Things as something in the future, and, thanks to amazing work by this community — I would particularly like to recognize  Rob van Kranenburg and Gérald Santucci and the work of the European Union, which has been amazing for many, many years now — the Internet of Things is not the future anymore. The Internet of Things is the present. It is here, now.

I was with an RFID company a month ago who told me that they had sold 2 billion RFID tags last year and were expecting to sell 3 billion RFID tags this year.
rfid-tags

So, just in 2 years, this one company has sold almost as many RFID tags as there are people on the planet. And, of course, RFID is just one tiny part of the Internet of Things, which includes many sensors, many actuators, 3-D printing, and some amazing work in mobile computing and mobile sensing platforms from modern automobiles, which are really now sensors on wheels, and will become more so as, as we move into an age of driverless cars, to the amazing mobile devices we all have in our pockets, that I know some of you are looking at right now. Then there are sensor platforms in the air. There is some really amazing work being done in the civilian sector with drones, or “unmanned aerial vehicles.: that are not weapons of war or tools of government surveillance but are sensor platforms for other things.

And all this amazing technology, which is being brought to life right now, is connected together by the Internet, and we can only imagine what is coming next. But one thing I know for sure is, now that the Internet of Things is the present and not the future, we have a whole new set of problems to solve. And they’re big problems. And they’re to do with architecture, and scalability, and data science. How do we make sure that all the information flowing from these sensors to these control systems is synchronized and harmonized, and can be synthesized in a way that brings meaning to data. It is great that the Internet of Things is here. But we have to recognize we have a lot more work to do.

It is not just important to do the work. It is important to understand why the work is important. The Internet of Things is a world changing technology like no other. We need it now more than ever. There are immeasurable economic benefits and the world needs economic benefits right now. But there is another piece that we mustn’t lose sight of. We depend on things. We can’t eat data. We can’t put data in our cars to make them go. Data will not keep us warm.

And there are more people needing more things than ever before. So unless we bring the power of our information technology — which, today, is mainly based around entertainment, and personal communication, and photographs, and emails — unless we bring the power of our information technology to the world of things, we won’t have enough things to go around.

The human race is going to continue to grow. The quality of our lives is going to continue to grow. The length of our lives is going to continue to grow. And so the task for this new generation of technology and this new generation of technologists is to bring tools to bear on the problems of scaling the human race. It is really that simple. Every generation has a challenge, and this is ours. If we do not succeed, people are going to be hungry, people are going to be sick, people are going to be cold, people are going to be thirsty, and the problems that we suffer from will be more than economic.

I have no doubt that we have to build this network and no doubt [it] is going to help us solve the problems of future generations by doing a much more effective job of how we manage the stuff that we depend on for survival. So, I hope everyone has a great week. It is really important work. I am delighted to be a small part of it. I am delighted that you all are in Helsinki right now. May you meet new people, make new friends, build great new technology. Have a great week.

 

Interview with Pinoccio co-founder Eric Jennings

By Eric Weddington, Marketing Manager, Open Source & Community

Pinoccio and Atmel - complete ecosystem for the Internet of Things

Pinoccio and Atmel – complete ecosystem for the Internet of Things

Pinoccio is a new Open Source Hardware business, building “a complete ecosystem for the Internet of Things”. They recently completed a successful crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo to help them build their first product: A pocket-sized microcontroller board, with wireless networking, rechargeable LiPo battery, sensors, and the ability to expand its capabilities through shields, much like an Arduino board. It features an Atmel microchip from the ATmega microcontroller product family.  This is the new Atmel ATmega256RFR2, a single-chip AVR 8-bit processor, a low power microcontroller with 2.4GHz transceiver for IEEE 802.15.4 supporting WPAN (ZigBee, ISA100.11a, WirelessHART, IrDA, Wireless USB, Bluetooth, Z-wave, Body Area Network, and MiWi) communications. In January, Ingolf Leidert posted a preview of the Pinoccio here on Bits & Pieces.

Eric Jennings, co-founder of Pinoccio

Eric Jennings, co-founder of Pinoccio

Eric Jennings, along with his partner Sally Carson, co-founded Pinoccio. Eric Jennings and I met at the first Hardware Innovation Workshop before the Maker Faire Bay Area in 2012. We discussed microcontroller radios, RF, mesh networking, Open Source projects, and kept in touch while he was working on the design of the Pinoccio. We talked recently about their design and process, Open Source, Open Hardware, and the future of Pinoccio…

Eric Weddington (EW): What inspired you, and your partner Sally, to create Pinoccio?

Eric Jennings (EJ): We’ve both been interested in hardware projects for quite a long time.  The first inspiration for Pinoccio was a book Sally and I both read by Bruce Sterling, called “Shaping Things”.  That book influenced us to what it would be like if a device like Pinoccio existed.  In that book, he describes an early concept of the Internet of Things–devices he called “Spimes”.  Spimes, he writes, are objects that can be tracked through space and time throughout their lifetime.  We extend that definition to include physical instantiations of data, that could exist all around us.  The book was written about a decade ago, so it may sound quaint today, but it was visionary when it was written.

EW: Most Open Source projects usually start off by “scratching your own itch”. What need did you see in the Arduino community, that Pinoccio can fill?

EJ: I have been involved with Arduino since first picking up Tom Igoe’s book “Making Things Talk” back in 2008.  I had dabbled in 68HC11 hardware hacking before then, and 8088 at the University before that, but it was always incredibly difficult to get started.  Over the years I built several personal projects on the Arduino platform.  I loved the platform, I loved how open it was, and how I could quickly learn the best ways people had found to solve all sorts of practical problems.

However, when it came to doing anything wireless or battery-powered, things kind of fell apart.  Price went up quickly with having to purchase additional shields, XBee modules, and lots of 9V batteries.  We wanted a tiny, pocketable Arduino-compatible microcontroller that was battery-powered, rechargeable, and had a built-in wireless radio.

So you could say that Bruce’s book gave us the insight of what things could become in the future, and the Arduino community gave us the hands-on experience to know what worked well today and what could be improved upon.

EW: What design principles did you and your partner follow, when designing Pinoccio? What were the “rules of thumb”?

EJ: Sally Carson, Pinoccio’s other co-founder, is an expert in the intersection between humans and technology.  What I mean by that is that she thinks very deeply and carefully about the psychology of humans interacting with computers.  Human-computer interaction, user experience, and usability all fall under her umbrella.  I consider her contribution a secret weapon in what we’re trying to achieve with Pinoccio.

So one of the major design principles Pinoccio follows is that of “how will this feel to a person?”  We’ve defined UX personas, which are defined as fictional examples of people within the user base.

We’ve defined two main personas for Pinoccio today, and every decision we discuss–from what power management IC to use, all the way up to the feel of the device in your hands–is debated through the lenses of the personas.  We’ve even named the personas, so when we talk about features or capabilities, we’ll say things like “do you think Edwin will care about this as much as Theo will?”  This has helped us focus on what features are important now, and what features can wait until later.

Another design principle we care a lot about is not letting price be our only deciding factor.  From early on, we realized that ease-of-use and reliability are just as important as price.  We certainly care about how much Pinoccios cost, as we want them as accessible as possible.  But we won’t respond to the trolls on forums that claim “What? I could build one of these in 30 minutes for $7.00.”  By all means Mr. troll, please do so.

Of course, if you’ve been in the hardware world for any length of time at all, you learn that things like manufacturing repeatability, volume purchasing, regulatory certification, and reseller relationships are essential to building a long-term, sustainable business.  Building one in your workshop is one thing.  Building 10,000 of them in an efficient, repeatable manner is something altogether different.

EW: How important is Open Source, both tools and the communities that support them, to Pinoccio?

EJ: Open Source has been a cornerstone of our company’s philosophy.  I would estimate that if we were to list out all of the tools, frameworks, servers, databases, and other software Pinoccio uses on a day-to-day basis, more than half would be open source.  Even things one may take for granted, like the lowly shell script, gives us an advantage we wouldn’t otherwise have.

Pinoccio itself is an open hardware company, meaning we not only publish our bootloader and firmware as open source, but our hardware schematics and board layout files as well.  Some people, after hearing this, think we’re crazy for doing so.  Others nod their head quietly and believe, as we do, that this is actually an advantage to us as a company–not some form of naive altruism.

We’ve closely followed the trajectory of companies like SparkFun, Adafruit, and 3D Robotics, and it’s clear to us that making your hardware open affords you such rapid feedback and design iteration, that you can quickly surpass larger, more traditional hardware companies, even with a tiny team.

There’s a story I like to tell that paints a picture of this.  There’s an individual who lives in Switzerland who reached out to us about 6 months ago.  He had heard of the Pinoccio project and was interested in learning more.  He started by sending me emails of simple suggestions he had after reviewing our schematics.  As we got to know each other better, I learned he was a retired medical device technology design engineer.  He had recently retired and purchased a 700 year old house in the Swiss Alps, and now has sheep and chickens in what could be argued the most beautiful country in the world.  Yet he said he loved electronics too much to leave it altogether.  He wanted Pinoccios to help monitor and manage his small farm.

Through collaboration, his contributions have increased our battery life 10x, and have given us the ability to control power handling on Pinoccio boards in a very fine-grained, very flexible manner–much more advanced than I had even initially considered. He and I continue to bounce emails back and forth, haggling over how to get the quiescent current of Pinoccio boards even lower.  He also designed an energy harvester shield for Pinoccio that can charge the Lipo battery with as little as 80mV, and we’ll be offering this shield for sale this summer.

Now imagine that for a moment.  Here’s an individual who is an expert at low-power systems.  He wouldn’t have found out about the details of our design if we were not open source.  And we would have never even known he existed.  Even if we did know of him, we wouldn’t have been able to hire him, because he’s retired, and it’s assumed he is not motivated by career advancement anymore.  This is extremely powerful, and our products evolve faster and better for everyone because of this openness.

EW: What sets Pinoccio apart from other products that offer similar functionality?

EJ: There are a lot of devices available today that offer subsets of functionality of what Pinoccios offer.  I would even argue that some of them do their particular subset better than we do.

But what sets us apart from them all is that we’ve built everything needed to get physical hardware talking to the web, seamlessly, and in an open manner.  Some companies come close to this, but may perhaps stop at the “open” part.  Others may have the openness down, but don’t get you all the way back to the hardware itself, with example firmware scripts.  We’re planning on each board having its own web URL where you can query or send commands to it.  That’s powerful for the tens of thousands of software and web developers out there who understand REST endpoints and web sockets, but are new to hardware.

Going back to personas, one of the requirements we have is that once you receive a Pinoccio starter kit, you should be affecting hardware–such as making its LED turn on or off–from a web browser in less than 5 minutes.  You should also be able to push data from the hardware to the web–such as temperature–in the same 5 minutes.  Back when I was hacking on Arduinos, I would spend all weekend trying to get a network stack working with the WiFi shield I had bought, and it would still drop connection unexpectedly.  And I’d have to spin up a Heroku virtual server instance to act as a web location for my project. So frustrating.

EW: What part of the design process with Pinoccio surprised you?

EJ: The most surprising part of the design process was how high-level we needed to start at in order to design this new product well.  Had we jumped straight into designing the hardware around things that I was preferential to, or around price, we would have an inferior product today.  Focusing instead on “what is it this device should solve for our personas” has really helped in focusing on what’s important.

It was surprising to me just how important this aspect of the design process is.  It sounds somewhat cliché, but products must be designed from the human back to the hardware, not the other way around.  I’m sure there are industrial designers reading this, thinking “of course”, but to formalize it in a new hardware startup from such an early point was a surprising yet important move for us.

EW: What part of the design process with Pinoccio challenged you, or was the most challenging, and how did you overcome that challenge?

EJ: Two major components have challenged us the most.  The expected one is building out the RF section of Pinoccios.  To non-RF engineers, RF is black magic.  It works, but exhibits behavior that isn’t always intuitive, and sometimes downright mystifying.  Add to this the general unavailability of knowledge and the expense of tools around how to tune RF front-ends, and it’s no wonder it still feels like black magic to most hardware engineers.

We tried to mitigate most of this challenge by following datasheet board layout recommendations to the letter, in addition to choosing RF front-end components designed specifically for the Atmel microcontroller radio we had chosen.  We went through seven revisions of the board before we found an RF layout that worked well.  However, this still wasn’t enough, as we had no idea if our antenna trace characteristic impedance was indeed correct.

I don’t like flying blind like that for production hardware, so we recently employed the help of an RF consultant in Portland, OR who is going to help us through final tuning and FCC certification.  It’s important, we’ve learned, to ask for help when you need it.  Nobody knows everything, and it benefits everyone when many people contribute their best knowledge to a problem domain.

The other component that challenged us the most was completely unexpected and very unsexy.  It was the header sockets we chose.  Pinoccios, like Arduinos, have the concept of a shield–a board with particular sensors or components that you can plug into header sockets on the main Pinoccio board–to extend its functionality.  Due to Pinoccio’s small form factor, the header sockets we chose are 2mm, but it turns out that nobody makes header sockets with this pitch, but low-profile and long tails.

We contacted all of the major header manufacturers (and several lesser known ones) and nobody has these.  So we’ve resorted to higher-profile header sockets for the time being.  It bugs us from the “how does it feel when you hold it” aspect, because the shield headers are taller than they need to be, but it’s something we’ve had to accept for now.  Once we get our first manufacturing run out, I wouldn’t rule out us biting the bullet and getting custom headers developed.  It’s extremely expensive to do so, but it’s important from the human interface aspect.

But who knew header sockets would be a major design challenge?

EW: You have recently finished a successful crowd-funding campaign. Congratulations! What will you focus on next?

EJ: Thank you!  Yes, the campaign exceeded our expectations completely.  We set a fairly high goal so that we would have plenty of room in case something went wrong with the FCC certification, or if we messed up costs or availability of various components.  However, we were delighted to see the community not only help Pinoccio hit its goal, but pretty much blew it out of the water by 75%.

Now we’re singularly focused on converting the momentum we received during the campaign into a sustainable, viable company.  First and foremost, this means getting the tools and equipment in place to deliver the first run of boards that the campaign pledges have reserved.  But it also means building out our e-commerce site for ongoing sales, building the web API portion of our platform, and beginning to hire people to help us in this work.

It sounds strange. The campaign was extremely fun and exciting, but now the real work begins in getting Pinoccios into peoples’ hands.

EW: It looks like you have many extensions planned for Pinoccio. What are some of the ways in which Pinoccio can be extended?

EJ: We currently have around 8 shields under development.  Everything from 3-axis accelerometer/3-axis gyro, to GPS, to environmental sensing, to motion and noise sensing, to 16 channel PWM LED driving, to energy harvesting.  We have a very active community forum where lots of the detailed technical discussion happens around what shields to build next.

We have arranged manufacturing where it costs us very little to introduce new shields, so we’re quite open to new shield ideas.

But even without shields, Pinoccios can be extended very easily.  The boards themselves break out almost all of the microcontroller pins to the header sockets.  So you have access to I2C, SPI, two UARTs, several GPIOs and 8 ADCs.  So anything you want to breadboard up, or build on a perfboard would work fine.  We also offer proto boards that let you solder in whatever design you want, and have it in a nice shield format, for a more permanent custom build.

EW: Now that the crowd-funding campaign is over, how can people just discovering Pinoccio order one (or more) for themselves?

EJ: We are finishing up some details for the e-commerce portion of our site.  There people can continue to pre-order Pinoccios even if they missed our crowdfunding campaign.  We’ll also offer several shields for sale as well as accessories like spare Lipo batteries, jumper wires, and other things you may want for prototyping.

We’re also talking with several well-known Maker/DIY resellers who have reached out to us, interested in carrying Pinoccios on their sites.  We can’t name names quite yet, but we expect you’ll be able to buy Pinoccios at many of your favorite online stores.

A Pocket-Sized, Low-Power Ecosystem Makes Wi-Fi Easy

By Ingolf Leidert

Sensor networks are nothing brand new and even terms like “smart dust” have been around for a while. Many have envisioned a future where every technical entity around us will be “smart” in some way and is permanently connected to a huge network consisting of small sensors that help monitor and control our world. Usually, the large step into such a future vision is divided into several smaller steps. Obviously, one parameter seems to be essential for the small and smart sensors vision: the power consumption of such an entity. With the ATmegaRF SoC family, Atmel has introduced one of the lowest power IEEE 802.15.4 systems in the world. Its low power consumption combined with the full AVR microcontroller (MCU) capabilities makes networks built with lots of compact, low-power wireless sensors look more realistic now. One project that shows this perfectly is the Pinoccio.

Pinoccio is an open-source, crowd-funded solution that provides a complete ecosystem for building products supporting The Internet of Things. These small “scout” boards, compatible with the Arduino platform, come with everything a “smart, wireless, connected entity” would need:

  • LiPo battery (chargeable over USB)
  • LED
  • Temperature sensor
  • Antenna
  • Several I/Os for connecting DIY hardware (like more sensors)
  • And, as its “heart”, the Atmel ATmega128RFA1 with its excellent power consumption of less than 17mA when actively transmitting. The ATmega128RFA1 is pin-compatible with the new ATmegaRFR2 family…so perhaps we’ll see future “scout” boards in 64kB or 256kB versions. 

The developers have chosen that MCU explicitly for its low power and RF capabilities. And, as you can see from the estimated power specs, a sleeping scout board should be able to run for more than a year from one battery charge. Because the whole Pinoccio ecosystem includes a Wi-Fi board that finally connects all the tiny “scout” boards to an existing Wi-Fi infrastructure and even offers SD card data storage, this whole system looks like a wonderful first step into The Internet of  Things.

Low-Power 2.4GHz SOCs for IEEE 802.15.4 Wireless Apps

Designing IEEE 802.15.4 wireless apps? As with many applications these days, low power is a key consideration in the wireless world. Attend our upcoming technical training webinar to learn about a new ultra-low power 2.4GHz SoC family that is targeted toward IEEE 802.15.4 wireless apps. The Atmel ATmega256RFR2 combines an AVR microcontroller with a 2.4GHz RF transceiver, delivering a link budget of 103.5dBm at 50 percent the current consumption of existing offerings.

The ATmega256RFR2-EK board gives you a head start in developing wireless apps with Atmel's ultra-low power device.

The ATmega256RFR2-EK board gives you a head start in developing wireless apps with Atmel’s ultra-low power device.

In the webinar, you’ll also learn about the new Wireless Composer and Wireless Library tools available in the new Atmel Gallery apps store that is integrated into the Atmel Studio 6 integrated development platform.

Webinar: 10 am PST on Wednesday, Dec. 5. Session will be led by Magnus Pedersen, one of our Wireless Wizards. If you can’t attend the live session, you can always register for free access to the Atmel Tech Online training portal, where you can find archived training webinars.