The IoT phenomenon has grown explosively. It turns out, knowing and visualizing the invisible side of the physical world is quite popular. This makes sense – devices from personal health trackers to professional air quality monitors help both the athlete and city make course changing decisions quickly, with ease, and at relatively low cost. At the beginning of this big market bang, there will be, and are, many competitors racing to develop their own solutions – each addressing many of the same specific industry needs in a different way.
Some IoT developers are accomplishing this in their garages and getting products to market in times that would challenge the largest of companies. Rapid prototyping, open-source components and code, as well as small production run factories with access to near-unlimited components and manufacturing processes (think China) have amplified the startup's ability to be an effective market player. Huge R&D budgets and manufacturing infrastructures are no longer necessary to get a product off the ground. 3D printing, Arduino's, and Raspberry Pi - have allowed “makers” to develop amazing electronic devices for fun and startups to develop new proof of concepts overnight.
While getting a proof of concept up and running is much easier with maker tools, designing a finished product that can be sold is still a challenge. On the hardware side, this consist of designing the circuitry and the enclosure – neither of which is a small task. Both need to be planned so they are the right size and shape for your use case. The circuitry’s complexity includes radio frequency design and integrating RF components with sensors, a microcontroller, and power supply. The enclosure needs to meet certain specs for the intended operating environment, while protecting the board and allowing the sensors access to the outside. It also must have the right shape, color, texture, and print on the outside. But, before diving into these intricacies, the developer needs to specify and implement a communication protocol (e.g. Wi-Fi, LoRaWAN, NB-IoT) and this takes careful consideration and expertise.
Each communication protocol has its niche. Wi-Fi is great for home owners who typically have existing coverage. But, even with this ubiquitous technology, there are vast areas that are uncovered and make it less useful for other applications such as outdoor tracking, smart agricultural, or irrigation monitoring for example. LoRaWAN provides ultra-long-range capability that Wi-Fi lacks and is perfect for environmental sensing and non-real-time asset tracking. It falls short when you need real-time or large data – for example, when tracking the alignment of product on a fast-moving conveyor or when transmitting video or audio. NB-IoT leverages existing cellular coverage, and has higher bandwidth, but brings limited penetration into more remote areas and below grade – think about the last time you made a call from deep within a parking garage. Its infrastructure is maintained by the large providers, but that also means less flexibility when coverage is poor – and it means each device requires a data plan.
Once the right protocol is selected, each has specific implementation frameworks with many facets that are left to the developer to flesh out – hardware, firmware, and software, including security and provisioning. IoT hardware providers are taking steps to alleviate this pain however, and this will be a key to more rapid device development from a variety of new companies. The solution is to provide a chipset or module that removes the complexity of developing the radio circuitry and bypasses the need to work with your protocol implementation from the ground up. These chipsets let the developer focus on the form and functions of the device, rather than the low-level radio minutiae. Many require integration with higher level components such as a microcontroller, antennae, and sensors – and they offer documentation for these integrations that is much more defined.
As the value that IoT solutions bring to home, commerce and industry, become clearer, demand continue its already-predicted exponential boom. Creative and entrepreneurial tinkerers will be drawn to this light, but now will have the power to take their garage-forged prototypes to industry-grade products easier and quicker. This is an exciting prospect as it brings more and more fresh blood to IoT which in turn brings extensive variety, healthy competition, and new solutions we have not yet imagined.