Defining the IoT, Part Four: A Gauntlet Of Challenges

Sensors Insights by Mat Dirjish

In part one we arrived at a less-loosely defined, fairly comprehensive, and quite operational definition for the Internet of Things (IoT) as a massive collection of "autonomous products that share information" over a massive common network known as the internet. In part two, the polled OEMs in the field concurred that this IoT 'thing' is and will be huge, presenting a plethora of opportunities in terms of innovation, modification, growth, and, importantly, profitability. From part three, hot markets/applications include, from the most cited down:

  • Medical
  • Biological and biochemical
  • Water quality and safety
  • Personal and home safety
  • Personal, public, and national security
  • Smart home applications
  • Manufacturing and industrial
  • Wireless connectivity (devices to smartphones/tablets/laptops/desktops)
  • Automotive safety
  • Wearable electronics
  • Military
  • Aerospace and air travel

Before going further, it's important to realize that each of these market sectors is huge with numerous subcategories. Although some were cited more often, it does not mean one category will be more important than any other.

At the moment, it appears that these twelve areas are primed and ready to escalate. Many more are also seeing upswings in demand and therefore opportunity for OEMs and designers. Just a curious note, conspicuously absent from citations is MEMS applications and MEMS-based sensors. There are a few good reasons for that, but they are outside the scope of this report.

Where To Now?

Sensor makers may actually have it easier than other EOEMS in that they already have viable products in many areas, i.e., temperature, humidity, pressure, motion, audio, video, etc. Sensors, in the simplest arrangement, will just need to interface with the internet and allow remote access.

However, the way these established sensors connect to the internet is another story. Will it be a wired or wireless interface? Obviously it will be both wired and wireless, but, judging by how the majority of people work now, the most prevalent connection will be wireless.

Will the norm be a massive array of discrete sensors? To some degree a lot of discrete sensors will be around, but sensor fusion, the integration of diverse sensors on a single chip or in one package, will become the norm. It will be an extremely long time before the electronics industry stops trying to squeeze five pounds of mortadella in a one-ounce bag.

That being said, it begs the question what are the biggest challenges facing sensor makers in getting on board with IoT apps? Is it software, hardware, interfacing, wireless connectivity, security, integration, other?

"Integration and packaging of devices to match demands are challenging", says Greg Montrose, Marketing Manager at American Sensor Technologies, Inc. "In many cases, the sensors need to be designed in miniature size, causing sensor technology not to be the right choice." Here is a nod to sensor fusion and customization. If an app requires a pressure sensor, optical sensor, and a motion sensor, all which must fit into a 3 mm x 4 mm space, integrating (fusing) the three into a single package will generate much sweat on the drawing table (or PC screen).

Comprehensively speaking, "Security is an important issue, but I don't view security as a sensor maker's problem" states Scott A. Nelson, Executive Vice President and CTO at Logic PD. "Obvious challenges are as usual: size, weight, and power (SWAP). Wireless integration and wireless standards will be a challenge for product marketers. Less discussed challenges, but well known by sensor designers, will be sensor fouling, calibration, and reliability in harsh environments." Interfacing wirelessly is an issue, and who really knows what standards may come down the road in the near future. Again, size, weight, and power, it's an issue of squeezing mass amounts of functionality onto the head of a pin.

Mike Ballard, Senior Manager, Home Appliance Solutions Group and Cloud Enablement Team Leader, Microchip Technology Inc. concurs on connectivity issues, claiming "Selecting the right connectivity method can be the hardest challenge, as there are so many choices, each with advantages and disadvantages. It is the design engineer's role to determine the importance of factors such as power consumption, data throughput, range, security, commissioning, etc. Once the best connectivity method is determined, the rest of the design can then be optimized."

On the other hand, Tim Scott, Director of Business Development at Novati Technologies Inc. sees, "Security as a huge concern with all of this connectivity. Cyber criminals getting access into your system and know when you are home or away, unlock your electronic door locks, monitor your activity on Wi-Fi connected cameras, hack your phone, etc. The convenience of connectivity comes at a price. Hardware and software manufacturers will have to work hard to maintain the integrity of their systems and prevent intruders from gaining access." It would be hard for sensor makers to omit or marginalize security concerns. When something goes wrong with a product, the big finger of blame points at all concerned – just ask any lawyer, hungry law student, or TV anchor person.

In agreement with an earlier premise that wireless will be the preferred connectivity method for IoT applications, "Interface and wireless connectivity seem to be the most important requirements for sensor makers to participate in for IoT markets" proffers Ryan Maley, Director of Strategic Marketing for the ZigBee Alliance. He believes, "Sensor makers should strive to make their products easy to integrate into or communicate with other IoT devices and systems. But, like hardware and software, there are many available solutions like ZigBee." And we can rest assure there will be unique wireless protocols on the horizon as well as evolving versions of ZigBee to deal with.

The Last Word

We give the last word to Jim Knutti, President and CEO of Acuity Inc., who again sums things up nicely when asked what are the biggest challenges facing sensor makers in getting on board with IoT apps: "Partnering with product innovators that are addressing specific market needs using all of these resources." Essentially put, since you can't do everything, find out what your sensor customers need and partner up with the experts that can competently fill in your blanks.

Of course this leads to the last and final question, the one that only you can answer. What are you doing now to service and profit from the demands of the IoT, now and in the future? After all, sensors and the internet are here to stay.

About the Author
Mat Dirjish is Executive Editor of Sensors magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].

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