protoTYPING: history of the Internet of Things, part two

protoTYPING: history of the Internet of Things, part two

I first became interested in an Internet of Things (IoT) device when I realized they could help me grow my plants.

I have a small 8’ x 12’ greenhouse at the end of my driveway that is packed with orchids, my dead grandmother’s Christmas cactus and my partner Kerry’s half dead wandering Jew plants that I tried to kill over the summer. The greenhouse is small and the temperature and humidity changes rapidly inside based on the ambient temperature and sunlight. Think of how rapidly the temperature in a car gets in the summer sun and you can get a sense for the challenge of controlling such a small air space. After installing a misting system for cooling a few years ago, I wanted a way to monitor the temperature in real time. I found a company called La Crosse Technology that offered a Wi-Fi temperature and humidity sensor. At less than $100, it reads the temperature and humidity every five minutes and sends the data to a website and emails you when the temperature goes out of range. I decided to give it a shot and ordered one.

Internet of Things: La Crosse Technology

La Crosse alerts temperature and humidity sensor.

After some frustration with the initial setup, I had the sensor installed in my greenhouse and communicating to a wireless receiver plugged into my router. Once I got it working, I was obsessed with the data. I could log on during a hot day and monitor the temperature and humidity to make sure the misting system was working. One day I could see that the temperatures were going out of range and called my neighbor to make some quick changes, thus saving some plant lives. Eventually I ended up ruining the sensor as I accidentally watered it and fried the circuit board. I recently replaced it and my greenhouse is back online. The service has since improved and now I can monitor the greenhouse from an app on my phone.

internet-of-things-broken-la-crosse-sensor

The broken temperature sensor. The microcontrollers are under the black epoxy dots on the board.

In part one of this series, I talked about the history of the Internet of Things and some of the different types of devices. In this final installment, I will talk about the ingredients of an IoT device, the different communication types and how to prototype an IoT device.

Ingredients of an Internet of Things Device

There are three parts that make up the core of an IoT product. The first piece is the device that performs a function and sends or receives data. The second is a network connection like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or cellular, and the last piece is a backend database or website to manage the data to and from the device. To illustrate, we can use the wireless temperature and humidity sensor from my greenhouse as an example. The wireless temperature sensor (part 1) has a module that monitors the temperature of an environment. Inside the sensor is a wireless communication chip that sends temperature data to a receiver connected to a router (part 2). The router is connected to the internet and the data travels over the internet and is collected by a database (part 3). The database can be accessed by the user via a website or an app on a smartphone.

Types of Connections

The key ingredient to making the IoT device work is the cloud. While relegated to a buzz word in marketing campaigns, online data storage and the management of that data is the key to making connected devices work. There needs to be some mechanism to get the data to the databases, and there are four main types of connections that are used to get it there.

Wired

IoT devices do not need to be wireless. It is possible to have a connected device that uses a wired connection for communication. This can be done through a CAT 5 or CAT 6 style cable that looks like an overgrown phone jack. Wired connections have some advantages as they can flow data much faster than wireless connections and are less likely to have loss of connection issues.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is one of the most popular ways an IoT device communicates with the Internet. It uses a 2.4 or 5 gigahertz radio signal to transmit data between the device and the wireless router. It allows for devices to be placed in areas where a wired connection would not be practical and provides a reliable connection. The downside is that it uses a large amount of power and the range is only about 200 feet.

Cellular

Cellular connections are another wireless way to connect to the Internet. Cellular connections rely on the network of high power cellular towers and protocols that define the data transmission. The most common cellular protocol for IoT devices is GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications). Cellular data allows for connectivity to the Internet from much further distances than Wi-Fi, but also uses a lot of power.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth is a popular short distance peer-to-peer wireless communication protocol, but it cannot connect to the Internet directly. It has a range of about 30 feet and is primarily used to transmit data between devices while using much less power than wifi or cellular. Bluetooth connections from an IoT device can be used to get data from the IoT device and transmit it to a smartphone. The smartphone then uses Wi-Fi or cellular data connections to push the data up to the web.

Internet of Things: Cypress Bluetooth Low Energy Development Board

The Cypress Bluetooth Low Energy development board. This is used for prototyping, and the small square board on the right of the photo with the Greek meander pattern is the chip and Bluetooth radio that can be used in the final product.

How to Prototype an Internet of Things Device

Many people have great ideas for connected devices, but it can be a challenge to prototype them. They often have both a mechanical and an electrical component, which makes it doubly difficult. Fortunately there are good prototyping techniques to get your idea connected to the web that do not require an engineering degree.

The heart of a connected device is a microcontroller, which is a tiny computer which can be programmed to control the device. One of the most popular and easy to use for prototyping is an Arduino. It is an open source hardware platform that can read sensors and control servos and actuators. It can also be expanded to add Wi-Fi or Bluetooth communication, and there are tons of resources and sample code on the web to help. There are also more powerful microcontrollers, like the Raspberry Pi that can be deployed for more complicated projects. The Enventys Partners team has been having good success using the Cypress Semiconductor Bluetooth chips and development boards, but they are likely a little bit too complicated for a novice to work with.

Internet of Things: Arduino Microcontroller

Arduino microcontroller with a breadboard for prototyping

The other side of the Internet of Things equation is the backend data management, or the connection to the cloud. This is the link between the IoT device and the smartphone or computer being used to monitor it. There are a number of services that can help handle the data management to deploy an IoT device. One of the most popular is Particle.io, which is free for prototypes that have 25 or fewer devices and 250,000 or less events to track per month, with additional plans that increase in price depending on the usage. Electronics supply company, Adafruit has released a beta version of their Adafruit IO platform to support IoT devices which is also helpful for prototypers. Amazon also provides and IoT backend called AWS (Amazon Web Services) that can host IoT databases and handle reporting.

If the technology gap is too large and you still want to bring an IoT device to market, there are specialists that can help you bring your idea to reality. Freelance websites like Gigster can help you find engineers and software developers that can help build out the sensors and communication to get a prototype together. There are also holistic design firms like Enventys Partners that provide a full suite of design, development, and marketing services and experience with IoT partners that can help bring the product to life.

Internet of Things: Cypress Bluetooth development board

Cypress Bluetooth development board with peripheral sensors and inputs.


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