Horses for Courses And The Internet of Things

Sensors Insights by Dave Davies

In 1898 a British writer was noted for the first recorded use of the expression “Horses for courses.” It comes from the horse racing world, where it is widely assumed that some horses race better on certain courses than on others. So what has horse racing got to do with the Internet of Things (IoT)?

In its current heterogeneous state, “horses for courses” is an apt buzzword to deal with the confusion surrounding the choices that new users have to make entering this new technological arena.

 

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What Is IoT?

There are several definitions:

  1. The interconnection via the Internet of computing devices embedded in everyday objects, enabling them to send and receive data.
  2. The IoT refers to the connection of devices (other than typical machines such as computers and smartphones) to the Internet. Cars, kitchen appliances, and even heart monitors can all be connected through the IoT.
  3. IoT is the inter-networking of physical devices, vehicles (also referred to as "connected devices" and "smart devices"), buildings and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data.

Figure 1

When IoT is augmented with sensors and actuators, the technology becomes an instance of the more general class of cyber-physical systems, which also encompasses technologies such as smart grids, virtual power plants, smart homes, intelligent transportation and smart cities. Each thing is uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system but is able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure. Experts estimate that the IoT will consist of almost 50 to 100billion objects by 2020. All in all given the hype surrounding this technological revolution it can be said that IoT is going to be big and is going to be life changing for individuals and organizations.

The common theme of definition is the word “connection or interconnection”. IoT is the use of devices or interfaces that can measure transmit and connect to other devices either directly or via a computer, locally, remotely, or in the cloud. The common elements are sensing, measuring, transmitting and processing.

There are a number of key areas currently identified that are seen as major growth areas for IoT, namely smart homes, smart cities, bio-medical monitoring, building management and monitoring, asset management and utilization, and transport systems including driverless vehicles. Inevitably given the embryonic stage of this technology the killer apps may not even have been considered yet.

The uninitiated user, entering this market, is presented with a whole range of what appear to be competing standards, all presenting their application solution to be the best. This is something that occurs when new technologies emerge. Each technological sponsor keen to ensure that their idea is the one adopted irrespective, even when it may not be the best technological implementation.

Early standards battles occurred between Ethernet and Arcnet (real time token passing network) and MSDOS and OS9 (real time multi user, multi tasking OS). The losers despite their higher performance specifications are now conscripted to the dustbin of history.

IoT is all about data. The engineering decisions regarding design of an IoT system are associated with the frequency by which the data is collected, the distance over which the data has to be transmitted and the level of processing required by default.

Data producing devices can either be wired or wireless, mains or battery powered, with the application determining the choice. For example in bio-medical monitoring devices would need to be battery operated as they would need to be totally portable. Sensors would need to be wireless and the distance between sensors and a gateway, designed to interface the sensor to the cloud or computer would be quite small.

The gateway could be a cell phone using LTE to communicate with the cloud for storage or processing. To this end the most suitable communication media would be low power Bluetooth.

This would be because of (a) the low power of the media, (b) the relatively short distance, and (c) the fact that the gateway, in this case the mobile phone, has an inbuilt Bluetooth interface. All sensors in this case would be low power devices, however the power consumed by LTE communications (cell phone to internet), would be quite power hungry resulting in regular recharging.

Most Bluetooth devices would use this environment to operate, namely small distances around 5m to 10m. In medium distance applications such as buildings or smart homes, i.e., 10m to 200m and higher power solutions may be necessary.

The same physical constraints apply, namely the combination of frequency of measurement, the distance, and the type of media. The more frequent the measurements are made the more power is utilized within the networks. The further the distance the more power is required to transmit the data.

In these applications Wi-Fi or proprietary wireless networks can be used.  Wi-Fi has a benefit in that it is a standard media with interfaces available on most cell phones. The benefit of Wi-Fi is that wireless sensors can utilize a standard Ethernet interface gateway in order to communicate with the cloud.

The disadvantage is that it is relatively high in power consumption and may be limited to less than 100m in distance. There are a range of lower power Wi-Fi devices available to overcome this general problem. Proprietary wireless networks have the benefit of longer distances and lower power consumption and usually lower cost, but sometimes the disadvantage of specialized gateways.

Products available at wireless sensors offer a wide range of battery operated wireless sensors either utilising Wi-Fi or proprietary wireless network. More than 40 sensors are available for a wide range of applications. A range of gateways are available for either Ethernet connection or 2G or 3G for more remote applications.

Data is directed to cloud storage where it is available for viewing by any type of device. API’s provide the means of inter system communication. Real time alarms or alerts are initiated should any measurement go outside a set limit. These devices would be used in a wide range of applications including agriculture, energy management, building management and monitoring, retail store management etc.

A wireless temperature sensor.
A wireless temperature sensor.

For long distances as are required in smart city applications there are a number of long distance standards available. One of the most popular is Lora. The Lora alliance is a group of companies that have evolved an operational standard to enable their various devices to inter operate in a wide area network.

LoRaWAN is a Low Power Wide Area Network (LPWAN) specification intended for wireless battery operated things in a regional, national, or global network. LoRaWAN targets key requirements of IoT such as secure bi-directional communication, mobility, and localization services. The LoRaWAN specification provides seamless interoperability among smart things without the need of complex local installations and gives back the freedom to the user, developer, and businesses enabling the roll out of the IoT.

 

So Horses For Courses

Low power Bluetooth for small distances or personal applications. Wi-Fi or low power wireless networks for medium local are networks and products like LoraWan for wide area networks for smart city applications. So what happens when users want homogenous data, for example city managers wanting data from buildings in the event of an emergency? Given the non-interoperability of these various standards, this has to be achieved at the cloud API level.

 

Conclusion

The nature of the IoT is that there are various standards and technologies available for the wide range of applications available. The important influencers of choice will be the type of application and the environment. The important aspect in making the choice future proof is to ensure that the system procured has an API to ensure easy data interoperability with other systems via the cloud.

 

About the author

Dave Davies has been in the sensors and data acquisition industry for close to 40 years. He started his own business, Wireless Sensors, and created his own hardware and software products. Visit the company’s website at https://wireless-sensors.co.uk/wireless-sensors.