Why SBCs and Development Kits are Essential in Enabling IoT
Development platforms – which embrace development kits as well as single-board computers (SBCs) – have evolved significantly over recent years to become the engine that is driving the design and development of integrated solutions that will form the backbone of the Internet of Things (IoT).
Development platforms are important because they have become an essential part of the early stage design process. They enable engineers to test their designs quickly and cost-effectively and provide proof of concept. Fully-tested kits that are easily available and ready to use eliminate the restrictions on engineers to use development kits and SBCs to test their ideas – now they can integrate them directly into their designs.
Another reason why these development platforms have taken on such a crucial role in the creation of IoT systems and solutions is that they have become affordable, compact and literally packed with power, performance and integrated connectivity – all the key requirements of any device that purports to be IoT-compatible.
Reductions in size and form factor, combined with the ability to deliver such high levels of power in a small package, have made development platforms ready for production. This means that engineers now have the capability to develop IoT gateways far more easily than has ever been possible, within the very short timeframes demanded of this burgeoning technology.
Not only can engineers use the latest development kits as a reference design for moving their creations forward, they can also use the boards themselves when manufacturing small volumes. This ability to access quick plug-and-play prototyping has proved to be a powerful tool for enabling designers to shorten the time to market for new IoT-related products.
The Internet of Things
Before going any further, it is worth looking briefly at what we mean by the Internet of Things – with apologies to those for whom the IoT is already second nature. Essentially, the IoT is a means of connecting via the Internet virtually any physical object that contains embedded technology (such as sensors or other modules) that allows them to sense and to communicate.
Where did this concept of an IoT ecosystem come from? Put simply, it is the evolution of the Internet, micro-electromechanical systems and wireless technologies. It has been said that by 2020 around 50 devices in the average household will be connected via the IoT to provide interactive smart-home networking. Many devices such as TVs and heating systems are already connected and can be operated and managed remotely. At the same time, the prediction is that in just three years there will be anything between 25 billion and 100 billion devices connected globally.
The impact of being able to connect an extremely wide variety of different devices and objects with their individual operating systems and software will depend heavily on cloud-based communications platforms, open source hardware and easy-to-use development tools. With the IoT controlling and managing a vast number of crucial devices, two criteria are required of the electronic and electromechanical components and nodes that interact via the gateway and communicate with the cloud or main system – they must be reliable and they must be low-cost.
We have established that for advanced IoT projects, development kits and single-board computers are the most effective way of designing and developing the solutions required.
Clearly, the easier these kits are to use, the better, since the IoT has the obvious potential of being extremely complex and challenging to design for. Embedded software, wireless connectivity, cloud platforms, rapid and accurate data analysis… the process of developing solutions that can interface and interact in this multi-faceted and rapidly-moving real-time environment must be simplified as much as possible.
The development kit has moved a long way from the platform to allow testing of micro controller functionality, which was the main purpose 10 years ago. Today many are designed to be low cost, application-specific development kits that are user-friendly yet powerful design tools for designers working on IoT solutions. On the other hand, SBCs are now available in very small form factors, with lots of functionality and connectivity at an affordable price, which makes them a ready for production solution and helps the users to go to market faster.
With this increased affordability and availability, the drive for an IoT-related development solution that could be used by the largest possible number of designers moved development boards away from being application-specific, costly and designed to showcase all the capabilities of a particular chip or device – specifically microcontroller units (MCUs), microprocessor units (MPUs), digital signal processors (DSPs) and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs).
Independent Single Board Computer Developers Simplify IoT Prototyping
There are many SBCs on the market today that lend themselves to IoT prototyping and the variety is potentially bewildering. The growth in the number of boards and in their affordability, was driven by price-sensitive independent Makers and Start-ups, forcing costs down while functionality and power have increased. This growing sector can rightly be said to have taken the market to a whole new level, opening up the world of IoT. Much of this market was driven by the launch of the extremely affordable and globally popular Raspberry Pi SBC – which accepts such typical plug-in PC accessories as a mouse, monitor and keyboard.
While the Raspberry Pi – which runs on a customised Debian Linux called Raspbian to provide an excellent user experience – kicked off the evolution of SBCs into highly powerful and cost-effective solutions capable of being used for a wide range of general purpose applications, the market soon got busier with a range of other SBCs.
One of these is the BeagleBone fully open source development board that also combined high-performance with low power and affordability. Said to put Android, Ubuntu and other Linux capabilities in the hands of designers, the BeagleBone board enables developers to move to production quickly without excess noise, expense or bulk. As the board’s manufacturer states: “Beagles are tiny open-hardware, open-software computers that plug into whatever you have around the house.”
Another popular SBC is the WaRP7 development platform that was designed to provide flexibility and rapid development for the IoT and wearables market. One of the smallest, most feature rich platforms available for wearable IoT applications, this SBC has the benefit of being ready for production. The WaRP7 is intended to simplify development for design engineers by delivering on connectivity, battery life and form factor. The open source design and software package enables developers to innovate without licensing restrictions, reducing time to market and allowing them to design products that stand out in the increasingly complex and competitive IoT market.
As well as single-board computers, the choices available now embrace microcontroller-based boards, system-on-chip boards, and boards that are designed and built for a specific purpose. All development boards offer a range of wireless connectivity options – including WiFi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and LoRa, which creates low-power wide area networks (LPWAN) for IoT, machine-to-machine, smart city and industrial applications. Of course, the boards also enable connectivity through wired ethernet.
IoT-Specific Development Kits
Other development platforms on the market include a range of manufacturers’ development boards that all provide the communications functionality required for IoT applications.
These include the Texas Instruments CC3100 and CC3200 LaunchPad Wi-Fi reference design incorporating SimpleLink Wi-Fi processors. These pieces of kit are intended for industrial machine-to-machine applications as well as smart energy, home automation, safety and security devices and multimedia devices.
Designed to “dramatically simplify the implementation of Internet connectivity”, the CC3100 unit features a Wi-Fi network processor and power management subsystems with Wi-Fi ‘Internet-on-a-chip’. The device integrates all protocols for Wi-Fi and Internet, significantly reducing host MCU software requirements.
The CC3200 device features a wireless MCU that has a high-performance ARM Cortex-M4 core running at 80 MHz, enabling customers to develop an entire application with a single integrated circuit (IC). Because of its on-chip Wi-Fi, Internet, and robust security protocols, the unit makes faster development possible without any Wi-Fi experience required.
The LaunchPad boards have also been designed to be very compact. This makes them more likely to meet the mechanical requirements of an IoT application where space is at a premium.
Also available is the NXP i.MX 6 series of applications processors for general-purpose solutions such as automotive, consumer, and industrial applications. This multicore platform includes single-, dual- and quad-core families based on the ARM Cortex architecture, including Cortex-A9 and combined Cortex-A9 + Cortex-M4 and Cortex-A7 based solutions.
Likewise, the i.MX 7 series is an integrated applications processor offering low-power solutions for secure, wearable and portable IoT applications. It too is a multicore platform with ARM Cortex-A7 Core and ARM Cortex-M4 Core. Worth mentioning again here is the WaRP7, which is one of the smallest development systems with its main CPU board measuring around 2cm x 4cm.
Other IoT solutions on the market include Microchip’s PIC32 development boards that feature various on-board peripherals for developing devices with high-performance PIC32 MCUs. The ‘Curiosity’ PIC32MZ EF development board is designed to simplify connecting products to the cloud, particularly when developing Amazon Web Services (AWS) IoT applications using Amazon FreeRTOS. This board is an integrated 32-bit development platform that also includes two mikroBUS expansion sockets which make it easy for designers to add extra features and capabilities.
The STMicroelectronics Nucleo IoT node WiFi development kit enables users to transmit sensor data through WiFi to the cloud and to receive commands from cloud applications. The development kit includes a Nucleo-64 development board with Cortex-M4F MCU, a Wi-Fi expansion board, a motion MEMS and environmental sensor expansion board and a dynamic NFC tag expansion board. Embedded software includes an STM32 ODE function pack for IoT node with WiFi, NFC and sensors, connected to the Microsoft Azure IoT Cloud. There is also an STM32 ODE function pack for IoT node with WiFi, NFC and sensors for vibration analysis, connected to the IBM Watson IoT Cloud.
Also from STMicroelectronics are the STM32 ‘Discovery’ development boards and kits which are designed to deliver a low-cost solution for evaluating the capabilities of STM32 MCUs. Offering flexible IoT node development, the kits support multiple low-power wireless standards and Wi-Fi and include motion, gesture, and environmental sensors, which are not available on other kits. With an integrated debugger/programmer, the kits also feature extension connectors that provide access to most of the device’s inputs and outputs, making it possible to connect add-on hardware.
The recent availability of highly affordable, convenient form factor and extremely powerful development platforms that offer high levels of functionality has enabled design engineers to create and develop IoT gateways faster and more cost-effectively than has previously been possible.
These development kits, including single-board computers, will play a vital role in enabling the Internet of Things to roll out rapidly and successfully to become the reality that creators and developers have been promising for decades.
Mobile communications and connectivity are now a key part of most people’s lives, with extensive use already of such technologies as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G, NFC and GPS. There are also many personal, metropolitan and wide area networks (WANs) in operation today and cloud storage is being adopted around the globe. These developments laid the groundwork for the Internet of Things but it is the advent of the low-cost SBC and development board that will speed up the implementation of IoT and turn it into something that – like smartphones and the Internet – the next generation will take for granted and wonder how the world turned without it.
Thanks to these development platforms, the Internet of Things will become an essential part of everyone’s lives much sooner than its inventors could ever have realistically conceived.
Why SBCs and Development Kits are Essential in Enabling IoT. Date published: 15th January 2018 by Farnell element14