A tractor and drone combination working a field

The internet of prototype things

Image credit: Xsens

Aren’t there meant to be billions of IoT nodes by now? There could be: it’s just going to take time to work out what they need to do.

Juan Nogueira, senior director of connectivity centre of excellence at contract manufacturer Flex, wants to know what happened to the market for the internet of things (IoT). He points to the confident predictions made by companies such as Cisco several years ago of tens of billions of IoT nodes being deployed by the start of the next decade. “We are nearing 2019. We don’t see the billions of devices. We don’t even see the millions. Why isn’t it taking off?” he asks.

It is not for want of IoT hardware or software it seems. Numerous companies have lined up smart-sensor boards and various combinations of software and firmware to try to gain a toehold in a market that is meant to see billions of nodes shipped and installed each year. It is an area that is seeing companies rework the boundaries between them. Take Silicon Labs, for example.

On the surface, Silicon Labs is a chipmaker. Having originally been a supplier of RF and speciality mixed-signal devices the company has steadily expanded its microcontroller operations. Two years ago, it bought operating-system vendor Micrium. Now the company has incorporated that into the GeckoOS environment and ready-made modules that will be used to support its forays into the IoT.

Coming from the other direction is the company Arduino, which made its name in the hobbyist and maker markets by wrapping software and module around the Atmel microcontrollers that are now part of Microchip Technology’s portfolio. Microchip itself is selling ready-made modules that combine its microcontrollers with radio transceivers and a cryptocontroller for security and links to Google’s cloud infrastructure. As well as launching a new set of modules aimed at IoT integrators, Arduino has created its own IoT cloud environment. In short, everyone is getting into everyone else’s business.

It’s partly a symptom of what happens around a nascent market that lots of people want to be part of. And it is partly about the problems that surround IoT applications: they involve a lot of moving parts. The tricky bit is working out which parts will be needed.

Nogueira lists some of the questions: “Customers are not sure about the comms technologies. Which sensing technologies? What data capture? How often to capture?”

However, the important question is this: “Does this idea give them a return on investment?”

Fabio Violante, CEO of Arduino, says: ”The best way to understand the benefits of IoT is just to do it.”

This is where the modules and ready-made software come in: to get people up and running quickly with some kind of prototype in the hope they will come back a volume order. That’s been a trend for some time in electronics design and has helped spread Arduino, Beagleboard and Raspberry Pi more widely than hobbyist projects.

Most realistic applications need to take into account not just the boards that go out in the field, but all the software that sits in the cloud trying to make sense of the data those modules feed them. The modules may be comparatively simple. They are just taking a temperature or a GPS reading to work out where they are and then letting the cloud software get on with it. That final component is the one that flips a business entirely on its head and makes it worth rolling out the sensor modules to thousands or even millions of units.

For companies like Flex, getting the prototypes into the field is the key step to winning a production contract. Nogueira cites the example of a manufacturer of construction machinery that wanted to add location awareness to its products, using a combination of sensing modalities including pressure to detect height above ground and contact to identify tampering. He says the project started in April with an initial order of ten units for programming and benchtop trials. “In June they bought 150 units with customized color and branding,” he says. These were to be attached to live products in a limited trial.

“In September we started producing the first product samples for test before going to mass production. We are expecting to scale to between 350,000 and half a million in 2019-2020,” Nogueira claims.

Violante points to one where the addition of IoT modules has changed the way the company does business in a similar manner to how GE and Rolls-Royce now, in effect, rent out propulsion for aircraft rather than jet-engine units. Fluid Intelligence, he says, now offers “connected oil” to the users of stone-crushing machines. An Arduino module is armed with specialist sensors that analyses the machine’s performance. “The data goes to their cloud where they apply their algorithms. They offer subscriptions for oil management that is used to reduce the downtime of the equipment. It extends the life of the oil by one or two orders of magnitude.”

Another user supplies agricultural tractor components and is retrofitting existing vehicles with tracking modules. “They track everything. They make sure the right driver is on the right tractor and that the right accessory is connected. If the pesticide is going to the wrong place, they can stop the tractor from the cloud,” Violante claims.

It’s potentially a radical reworking of the relationship between tractor supplier and customer. Now the supplier takes a keen interest in where the tractor is and what it is doing. It carries with the advantage of giving the customer some reassurance they are not about to spray pesticide on the organic-crops field by accident. You want to be really sure this kind of function is working properly and demonstrates how important prototyping across the entire infrastructure is going to be.

Extensive field trials are needed to work out where things can wrong – which could be anywhere from the sensor interface up to a wayward database in the cloud. Making it easier to get those trials up and running is going to be where the focus lies for some time. Those billions of IoT nodes can wait.

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