All About the IoT: How Sensors, Gateways, and the Cloud Form the Internet of Things
No matter what product your company makes or what service your company provides, it’s almost guaranteed you’ve been hearing about the Internet of Things in one way or another. Everybody wants to get in on the Internet of Things, for good reason. Smart devices are enabling exciting new applications in every industry.
In the endless quest for companies to add value to their offerings, machine data and machine intelligence are giving many companies a distinct edge over their competition. But many companies are still struggling to understand what the internet of things IS. Or how it works. Or, more specifically, how the internet of things can work for them.
Sometimes that uncertainty takes interesting forms. Here’s an example: Ted is a product manager for a company that makes industrial equipment. He does his due diligence in researching market trends, and has seen for years an increased interest in “smart pumps.” The interest in the market is there, and competitors are beginning to test the space with their own “smart pump” offerings. But what exactly a smart pump is, or what it can be, is unclear.
The command has already come down from the mountain that the next generation of pump designs will be smart pumps, but there is little definition for what that means. It’s a matter of simply keeping up. What the pumps will be doing, how they’ll communicate, what hardware is needed… there are many unknowns.
This scenario is much more common than you might think. The end goal for everyone is to provide greater value through smarter products or services. They’ll do this by using the information in the world around them to make predictions, anticipate and prevent failure, learn about and replicate successes, and slowly scrub away pain points for customers in lots of exciting ways.
But to get there, we’ve got to have a clear understanding of what the IoT is. Taken as one big ecosystem, what are the components? How do they interact with each other? What is the cloud capable of? What information is useful, and how do we get it from the ground to the cloud? And what do we do with it once it gets there?
1: What is the IoT, and What Does it Do?
It’s probably best to start talking about the entirety of the Internet of Things with a definition. The Internet of Things is the ecosystem made by connecting every kind of device to the internet for the purposes of acquiring data, control and automation, remote sensing, and more without human intervention. It’s a very broad definition, but that speaks to just how far reaching the potential applications are.
Philosophically speaking, it’s about making all the information of the world accessible and being able to act on it in ways that save human effort and make our lives better and more efficient.
This is why people often distinguish between “smart” and “dumb” devices in reference to the IoT. Every object that we interact with every single day has some form of data inherent to it.
Without a means to sense, capture, process, and send that information, most of these objects remain dumb objects. There is something meaningful that they can measure about themselves, or that can be controlled and automated, but the electronics and software are not in place.
Now, thanks to increasingly more affordable sensors, it’s no longer impractical to outfit nearly everything with wireless microcomputer hardware that can harvest that meaningful information or be remote controlled by the cloud.
If you have ever looked at your running shoes and wondered exactly how many steps you’ve taken in them, you can start to see the broad horizon of what the IoT can do. This is the kind of meaningful information inherent to an object that the IoT is designed for. The possibilities are endless.
What the IoT is really about, therefore, is solving very human problems in elegant ways.
What if a pill can be outfitted with sensors to take and share measurements inside the body, eliminating the problem of an invasive scope? What if your refrigerator can tell you when you’re at the store that you need a gallon of milk? What if your garden can alert you that it’s thirsty, or your front door can remind you that you forgot to lock it? And then, what if you can lock it with your phone, anywhere on planet earth?
This is what the IoT is built to solve. Everything around us is better when its properties are known, when it’s controllable, and when it can alert us to problems before they become problems.
In short – the IoT means a better, more convenient life for people in ways great and small. Imagination really is the only limit.
2: Architecting the IoT with the Node / Gateway / Cloud Model
The IoT is the result of a lot of devices operating in coordination with each other, sometimes asynchronously or agnostic of each other. They operate at different levels, and each take custody of different aspects of data’s journey to and from the internet.
There are all sorts of devices in the IoT, but they can very generally be broken down into three roles: Nodes, Gateways, and Cloud Services. Together, they form a chain that gets data where it needs to go: Nodes at the smart device, Gateways positioned within range to provide the uplink/downlink with the internet, and the Cloud to store data, manipulate it, and initiate actions down to nodes again.
IoT Nodes – Sensing and Controlling
The most numerous type of device in the IoT can be referred to as the node. These are all the exciting devices that are providing sensor data, or devices that are being controlled from the cloud. This means things like door locks, security sensors, temperature sensors, and more.
Put simply, the node is the “thing” in Internet of Things, and until recently they were a practical impossibility. Nodes tend to be either lightweight sensor devices, which primarily gather status information over a pre-programmed interval, or middleweight devices which also offer controllable functions (like a door lock which can be toggled, traffic lights whose patterns can be adjusted, or industrial equipment which can be disabled if a fault is triggered.
The IoT node as we know it today, in its most minimal use case, can be a sensor embedded in an object that is never serviced again across the life of the device. They can be wireless and operated on a coin cell battery for years. What seemed impossible just a few years ago is now quickly becoming standard. And that’s thanks to incredible innovations in low-power operation of wireless modules.
Laird Connectivity’s BL654, for example, is a product that comes from a long line of Bluetooth modules that support Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). BLE, introduced in the Bluetooth v4.0 specification, enables infrequent status-type messaging between Bluetooth devices with long sleep cycles in between messages.
The BL654 consumes 4.8 mA power at peak transmission. But during deep sleep, which can be configured to last a very long time, it only consumes 0.4µA – about 12,000x less power.
This is leaps ahead of the kind of power savings that were possible even just a decade ago, and it’s part of the reason that the IoT is finally beginning to live up to its promise.
Not all nodes are light on power consumption – they can be bigger, more complicated devices that run on AC power as well. However, the ability to put a sensor into virtually anything and give it years of battery life is the primary driver for the explosion of smart devices that we see now. It also creates a challenge, because a low power wireless hub is needed that can support lots of devices connecting infrequently. And there are lots of approaches to doing that, which we refer to as gateways.
IoT Gateways – The Launch Pad to the Web
The IoT gateway is the central hub for sensors that collects their data, and they come in many forms. They interface directly with sensors and provide the path for that data to go to the cloud. Gateways can be designed to operate in so many ways that it can be hard to generalize.
In some cases they may listen passively, and the sensor operates without even knowing the gateway is there. In some cases they may establish bidirectional communication with the sensor, allowing the sensor to be controlled by the cloud through the gateway. A gateway may be a small unit collocated with the sensors on-site, or it may be the massive cellular tower miles away. Much of this depends on what wireless technology is used, all of which have advantages and disadvantages.
Most IoT devices communicate over either Wi-Fi, LTE, Bluetooth, or LoRaWAN. These technologies vary in their available throughput, their range, their power consumption, and more.
Selecting the right technology for a given use case is an important early decision for an IoT implementation, as well.
For those who are especially protective of their data, LoRaWAN may make the most sense as it allows you to build a private network without relying on a big public gateway, like a cellular tower.
For a smart home installation, where the components are all nearby, a short-range Bluetooth gateway can offer adequate coverage at a substantially smaller power consumption and send the data to the internet over home internet service.
If higher throughput is needed (like a group of security cameras that are capturing live video), a Wi-Fi gateway can provide coverage over a whole facility to capture that video and send over Ethernet to the server that catalogs that video.
Importantly, gateways are often multi-protocol for this reason. Gather sensor data over Bluetooth and send it to the internet over Ethernet. Connect industrial hardware over serial port to a gateway, and control that gateway via a Wi-Fi connection to the internet.
The purpose of a gateway is to bridge devices and make them accessible, and this very often means supporting multiple types of connectivity. Laird Connectivity’s IG60, for example, supports Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, Serial, and USB connection, because retrofitting IoT connectivity to an existing system can mean having to resolve lots of different protocols and connector types to connect to the cloud.
Cloud Services – The Brains of the Operation
The cloud aspect of IoT is where real intelligence happens, and what makes the IoT more than just a collection of devices talking to each other. The cloud is composed of the storage and processing in a data center that allows data to be pulled in from a gateway and to be manipulated or analyzed in software.
This tends to be a subscription type service such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure, although it’s possible to host the cloud storage and computing independently on your own server. The major advantage of suppliers like Amazon and Microsoft is the worldwide access, content distribution, and ability to scale which enables very large and flexible IoT applications.
The cloud, more than anything, is about gaining insights into the data around us to make meaningful changes that make things better. Consider the following example: A factory is outfitted with sensors on all of its manufacturing equipment to keep a watchful eye on operations. The factory’s administrators can see when equipment is running, when it stops, gather machine codes that the equipment spits out if there is a fault, and more. All of this by itself is already useful – the ability to see this all in one dashboard removes the need to have inspectors constantly examining the equipment. Centralized information is a major efficiency advantage.
However, with the cloud, the factory administrators can go much farther. A well-crafted cloud application can look for trends in that information. Maybe it’s discovered that a stamping machine routinely goes down every night between 10 and 10:30. And it’s also discovered that the materials that stamping machine needs are being scanned in at the wrong loading location.
The solution becomes obvious: change the process so that those materials are loaded at a different location, making sure the needed parts are in the right place at the right time to eliminate outages. A problem which was hiding in plain sight becomes obvious when the data is analyzed. The solution becomes immediately apparent.
This is the philosophy behind the many ways that the cloud can be used to make all kinds of things work better, smarter, and more efficiently. It also allows tasks that would have required human time and effort to be automated, making people’s lives easier and decreasing errors. The applications are truly limitless, and the cloud is what enables this.
4: Breaking the Model – Designing to Your Specific Use Case
There is no limit to the kinds of intelligence and control you can achieve with your devices. While we’ve focused largely on lightweight sensors that make up the majority of devices, there is no limit to what can be achieved in the IoT. It’s an exercise in creativity, and in manufacturers’ ability to identify what’s useful to them and how to leverage it towards a better way to get things done.
While the node/gateway/cloud model seems inherently to move from the most lightweight and distributed up to the most powerful and centralized, that’s only one way to approach the IoT. There are lots of ways to build an IoT solution. In extreme cases, you may not have a centralized gateway at all.
For example, consider a warehouse with several industrial freezers. It may be that maintenance workers on site already have regular tasks that must be performed every few hours. Since workers will be visiting each refrigeration unit several times a day, it may make the most sense to log data on a sensor at each freezer and manually collect it via a smartphone or other handheld device at each visit.
In this case, the smartphone or handheld serves as a temporary gateway, and data transfer only happens when it’s initiated in person. It’s much different from a central gateway scenario, but it may be the most sensible option for that OEM.
In some instances, the gateway and the node may actually be one device, a sort of standalone gateway. If a wall unit can measure temperature data at its location and also communicate via Wi-Fi, there may be no need to have a separate temperature sensor. If the communications unit in a vehicle contains an LTE modem and is also wired to the door locks, that communications unit can unlock the doors on user request without a need to have a separate device to do that.
The node/gateway/cloud model simply makes it more economical to introduce more points of control or measurement. If it’s useful to have measurements taken at multiple locations around a facility, it’s more economical to have those points of measurement be inexpensive and efficient, rather than have several more complex and expensive units performing the same task. But in many cases, a single centralized unit may be the best device for the application.
Similarly, it’s worth considering how much processing to do at the gateway level before passing data to the cloud. Gateways can vary greatly in how much they do with the data presented to them. For example, an IoT gateway in a driverless vehicle may be taking on hundreds of sensor readings per second, analyzing the status of the vehicle’s systems, the objects sensed around the vehicle, traffic data from the cloud, and more.
In a vehicle, microseconds matter in keeping the vehicle on target, driving safely, avoiding obstacles, and ultimately protecting the passenger. It’s inefficient to send all this data out to the cloud and to make decisions there. Rather, more powerful in-vehicle processing is needed. Balancing these considerations is important both in terms of meeting your application’s needs and keeping your design within budget.
Getting Started – Major Considerations
The IoT offers the ability to simplify our day-to-day routines, make our jobs easier, make our surroundings more accommodating, and generally make life better. And the only limit is the solutions we can dream up.
But a strong IoT execution is rooted in choosing carefully. Choosing the right sensor, gateway, or wireless module for the job is critical -- they must be of the appropriate size and complexity, designed for efficiency, and capable of the throughput and range you need, among other things.
The following considerations are helpful when embarking on an IoT design project:
- What is the pain point you’re trying to solve?
- What data helps solve that problem, and how can it be digitized?
- Do you need many sensors / control points (nodes) or is a single centralized device enough (standalone gateway)?
- Is there a large amount of data being sent (high bandwidth needed) or is the data lightweight and intermittent (low bandwidth, low power)?
- Do you want to perform large amounts of analysis on your data (cloud solution), or create simple event-driven applications (computation on sensor or gateway)?
- Is there a need for ultra-low latency data processing (standalone gateway)?
Answering these questions can help identify the solution that’s right for you. There are many ways to the IoT, and Laird Connectivity provides the hardware, software, and design expertise to bring your applications to the IoT.
Visit IoT Platforms to learn more.