2020 – 20 years of IoT

Author: Luka Mustafa, IRNAS CEO

It’s 2020 and I’m almost 30 years old. In 2040 I will be almost 50. We’ll come back to that as we go on…

Retrospective

About 20 years ago I got my first mobile phone, bulky and amazing. Battery lasted for a week, all I could do was to make a call and send a text message. Let’s have a look back. A good intro into Cellular IoT if you are not familiar with the topic: https://blog.nordicsemi.com/getconnected/what-is-cellular-iot.

How did cellular IoT look from the year 2000 onwards?

  • 1982 – Ideas about “IoT” type solutions start to appear
  • 1991 – CELLPAC mobile data protocol created as the foundation of GPRS
  • 1991 – 2G service launched in Finland
  • 1999 – Kevin Ashton coins the term Internet of Things: https://www.postscapes.com/iot-history/
  • 2000 – GPRS (2.5G) mobile data transmission becomes generally available – first connected IoT devices through a mobile network
  • 2020 – 2G networks being phased out, sunsets mostly planned 2020-2025

From the above incomplete list of events and technologies, we can observe about a 10-20 year development period followed by a 20 year lifetime for solutions before being phased out to be replaced with newer and better. Given the rapid increase in the speed of development, the evolution may speed up, while at the same time more and more technologies are software-based and thus more suitable to be maintained for a longer period of time. We can therefore assume the 20-year cycle will remain. Likewise, designing solutions for common applications with 20-year lifespan is just about possible.

Ultimately, we wish to build robust and reliable solutions using well-proven technologies to avoid any unforeseen problems and generally allowing the technology to reach maturity before use. Thus the need for innovation must be well balanced with using well-proven solutions.

Development focus at IRNAS is at keeping up with the latest IoT technologies and learning and testing them as they evolve while at the same time developing automation and validation methods to bring products with new technologies to reliable operation as quickly as possible. At the end of the day, the IoT devices we are developing now will be adults by the time I turn 50! Our goal is to design them at this time such that they can mature over time without running out of energy or failing.

Guiding principles

To navigate the exponential growth in IoT demand and technical availability, we are creating future-proof solutions by making them:

  • always upgradable
  • always automatically tested
  • always originating from trusted sources

We shall dive deeper into each of these topics to explore design choices and requirements. To better enable the discussion, the arguments are based around typical IoT devices in our portfolio.

  • “LoRaWAN tracker” with GPS for rugged applications – a self-contained device with GPS and a battery designed to be left in the field for a decade and send data
  • “NB-IoT sensor” outdoor industrial infrastructure – a self-contained device installed in the field collecting sensor data and reporting them to the cloud for a decade or two
LionCollarPayload-Primary
IRNAS development for Smart Parks
Izoelektro-RAM-1-unit
IRNAS development for Izoelektro

Always upgradable

The next 20 years are likely to present a significant evolution in the two key technologies presently used, namely NB-IoT and LoRaWAN for long-range communication and Bluetooth and NFC for short-range.

NB-IoT and LTE-M1 as part of the 3GPP are projected to remain available as part of 4G and 5G networks, however, we can expect significant optimizations and improvements to be rolled out. We are working hard to design our devices in a way that they can withstand these changes in the future and consequently increase their lifetime on the go.

LoRaWAN standard is likewise evolving, with new revisions becoming available every few years and additional features and performance optimizations being implemented. While one can always run private gateways in any old configuration, the new application will likely require this infrastructure to be upgraded. Certain reverse-compatibility is maintained, however not necessarily over a decade without significant drawbacks.

The added value of the IoT devices can increase over time provided they can be upgraded to evolve with the latest technology advancements. With a number of smart choices in hardware design and cost optimization, plenty of more advance analytical features can be added to the device over the years, along with updates resolving any potential bugs. This offers an opportunity for the device manufacturer to create additional added value as well as help better address the use-case.

The worst-case scenario of IoT devices is creating a truck toll event, where someone must go into the field and service the unit, which comes with a significant cost. The most painful causes are:

  • a bad communication configuration, for example on mobile network APN setting, wrong band or not adjusting the device according to the changes of the mobile operator
  • the unit running out of battery prematurely
  • other random events that are much more difficult to predict but as well may not be very frequent.

The following chart shows our experience and opportunities with various technologies. The higher the score, the better the technology is in those aspects.

NB-IoT and LTE-M1 as cellular technologies are very similar in performance except throughput and range. They excel for applications that send more than a minimal amount of data and have higher added value due to a somewhat greater device cost.

Bluetooth and NFC pare particularly optimal for short-range communication at a reasonably low cost, efficient in sleep as well as being suitable for performing firmware upgrades. Bluetooth low energy particularly is interesting for local access as well as device-to-device communication.

LoRaWAN on the other hand has a very good balance of all the aspects, lacking particularly in firmware upgrades over the air which are possible, however not very straightforward, but excels in cost and range perspectives as well as overall system complexity.

Ideal IoT device supports all of the ones above, however specific to the use-case we can pick the two that fit best the application.

IRNAS always aims for three types of communication to be present on all high-quality and added value IoT solutions, namely localremote and backup.

  • Local communication enables a service technician to perform a number of key tasks:
    • Deployment test; validate that the device is operating correctly when being installed
    • Apply a firmware upgrade if a remote communication option has failed
    • Use the device in local mode with partial functionality regardless of remote connectivity option
    • Technologies used:
      • Physical connector: If the device is easily accessible and trained personnel is using it
      • NFC: Wireless communication with good security due to short distance, good for waterproof devices and smartphone compatibility
      • Bluetooth: Wireless communication in the short-range which is great if the device is mounted inaccessibly. It offers additional options such as using drones or other automated solutions to come in the range and perform actions. It also offers the capability of local device clustering.
  • Remote communication is the link to the world and the cloud
    • Send data and receive updates
    • Technologies used:
      • LoRaWAN
      • NB-IoT/LTE-M1
      • other options
  • Backup communication to be able to receive limited data out-of-band
    • Required in most demanding application as a failsafe
    • often implemented with an additional remote technology, say NB-IoT + LoRaWAN
    • Technology options:
      • Lacuna.space – enables the use of the same LoRaWAN module to send data to space and terrestrial gateways, only an appropriate antenna is required.

As the most optimal configuration typically appears to be Bluetooth + LoRaWAN or NB-IoT, we have established our focus on building low power solutions with Nordic Semiconductor solutions, which very well cover the low-power hardware aspects as well as advanced firmware features, OTA upgrades and security best practices.

The 20 year device lifetime is enabled by smart technology choices that enable constant device evolution.

Always automatically tested

The rapid evolution of IoT solutions drives the development cycles to be short and effective with a significant portion of development on the firmware side happening well after the hardware is deployed in the field. The latest advances in embedded system automated testing enable the creation of automated validation solutions as part of the development process.

IRNAS’s approach to automated testing is roughly spat into three key phases:

  • Developer automated testing setup, increasing development efficiency: we develop firmware with real-time power consumption monitoring, develop drivers and hardware interfacing code with continuous integration support and tests. All our firmware functions are unit tested, emulated or cross-compiled on a computer.
  • Continuous integration testing of the full solution: during the development, as well as continuously over the lifetime of the product we perform (a suitable version of) device integration testing, on actual hardware, validating the operation in various scenarios, end-to-end.
  • Production testing: validating that every device operates correctly at the point of production. This step is most often coupled with device provisioning and shipping mode configuration.

The common misconception is that spending time for designing all of these multi-level testing procedures often takes more time than the development itself. To some extent we can’t argue with that. However, being in a position of running over 20 projects a year as we are, we found it extremely valuable to make the time investment and dedicate a year of active iterative refinement to our universal system validation setup, coupled with simple Python scripts, which we can then easily adapt to every specific piece of hardware we develop and spend only a fraction of time, once we’ve reached a desired level of universality with it. This is one of the highest-return investments we’ve made that can get us a big step closer to reaching our goal of delivering bug-free solutions to our clients.

The 20 year device lifetime is enabled by thorough testing during development as well as continuous quality monitoring throughout the device lifespan, proactively fixing potential problems.

Always from trusted source

IoT solutions for industrial applications have significant added value to their field of application. That said, that is true only if they are long-term reliable in their performance, which always tends to depend on cost considerations. While it is often possible to find a cheaper hardware component, the true cost of it is difficult to determine. Primarily, it consists of validation costs to make sure the component works as defined in all expected and unexpected cases. Furthermore, it is dependent also on the required firmware support and a number of well-defined features as well as the reputability of the source. As we’ve seen it ourselves time and time again, risky choices for direct hardware cost-saving often lead to efforts in development that are hard to predict and hard to manage. The reduced cost of the component itself really only becomes significant in the case of large-scale manufacturing.

At IRNAS we design and produce the prototype batches of devices, manufactured in our in-house production facility. We also work with trusted local partners in Slovenia to produce high-quality products. Components for IoT solutions are sourced from reputable distributors from our range of technology partners.

The 20 year device lifetime is enabled by good quality components well-assembled into a product line.

Conclusion

Building a solution that will work in 2040 (when I’m almost 50!) is entirely feasible today with technologies and solutions currently available. To enable such a long lifetime from the communication perspective, a suitable technology must be chosen and the whole solution must be very rigorously tested. At IRNAS we strive to continuously improve our development methods and grow as a novel solution provider. Often we also encounter gaps in technology and tools and end up creating our own, making them openly available or creating a spin-off like Testnik.io to make our job easier in the future and our solutions more sustainable today!

About the author

Luka Mustafa

Luka Mustafa

He leads Institute IRNAS since 2014 with his inventor & maker mindset. He is in charge of business strategy, keeps an eye on all aspects of hardware development in projects we’re involved in, is an expert in telecommunications and regularly speaks about the benefits of open and future-proof hardware at events around the world. He is pursuing a PhD at University College London (UCL) in the EE ONG group and was a Shuttleworth Foundation Fellow.

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