If I’m convinced of one thing in the ever-changing landscape of modern electronics, it’s that RF and wireless technologies are changing the world. I’ve heard it said that if you’re not an RF engineer today, you will be, and the evidence in support of that sentiment is overwhelming.
At our annual user conference, NIWeek, in 2011, we talked about research underway to embed radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags into construction site hardhats to reduce injuries from human/machine collisions. Think about that.
The designer of a hardhat may be a chemical engineer who has expertise in materials and injection molding. Put an RFID tag in the hat, and that engineer is now designing a wireless device, incorporating wireless technologies with which he or she is totally unfamiliar.
Fast forward a short three years, and we are approaching wireless connections in every powered device we buy. And every automobile. And tennis shoe. And electrical meter. And refrigerator. The list goes on and on.
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The IoT’s Evolution
Much has been said about this proliferation of the Internet of things (IoT), so I won’t bore you by reiterating the incredible statistics about connected devices. My mind is drawn to the enabling technology and what it implies for a company designing hardhats.
RFID was a precursor to so much of this, offering a (supposedly) simple way to manage assets throughout Walmart warehouses. We also started to see standards like 802.15.4 (ZigBee) establish low-power personal-area networks that complemented the higher-power 802.11 Wi-Fi implementations we were relying upon for computing. In every case, it was a radio combined with a light layer of software, standardized into a common platform as much as possible, to connect the world.
At National Instruments, we serve embedded control and monitoring applications as well as test and measurement of consumer and semiconductor devices, so we’re seeing some of the latest technology evolution occurring to support these diverging requirements. It’s a tale of two markets.
Industrial embedded applications value low-power, high-security transmission that can be deployed with minimal maintenance for years. Think about the sensors on machines in oil fields, factories, and power systems around the globe. By contrast, consumer devices place value in ubiquitous connectivity with cellular and Wi-Fi standards that maximize data bandwidth, so long as the battery lasts.
Even with such differing requirements, technologies specializing in each market are progressing toward each other. For instance, a new version of Wi-Fi, 802.11ah, is designed to work over longer distances while consuming less power to support local ZigBee networks for industrial monitoring or perform the actual device communication themselves.
We’re also seeing Near Field Communications (NFC) function both as a simple contactless payment system or to bootstrap a more powerful Wi-Fi connection. The 802.11p standard promises vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication for automobile collision avoidance.
It’s quite interesting to watch these technologies be deployed and find their niches. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that the best technology doesn’t always win. Sometimes a government steps in to regulate and a powerful lobbying group forces a particular standard into law. Other times a secondary use case of one standard wins purely because its primary use case is a part of our daily life.
You may say this is the story of Apple versus BlackBerry. BlackBerry phones certainly had better infrastructure to support corporate e-mail. But when the iPhone became the device many people chose for their personal connectivity, it influenced corporate IT departments in a hurry.
The Next Step
So how does one manage? The smartest entrepreneurs and business leaders dealing with this ambiguity are architecting their solutions on a platform that can withstand the unpredictable nature of the wireless industry. They need option plays in case their bet on a particular standard is wrong.
We see the parallel in test and measurement. You need a platform that can abstract the protocol from the functionality of the device. It also must be able to test the different protocols themselves without buying new hardware every time the protocol changes.
We’ve used the term “software-designed instrumentation” for a while now. It’s very much inline with the general trend of mobile devices where user-selectable “apps” make a device whatever you want or need it to be. The devices under test have figured out this is the best approach in a changing market, and it’s time the test equipment did as well.
From a 50,000-foot view, the IoT represents just another form of connectivity, as simple to grasp as a serial port or a phone line. From another, it opens up dozens of potential use cases that can fundamentally change the way we interact with electronics.
When dealing with a paradigm shift enabled by the explosion of platforms, it’s worth your time to consider what common platforms you use to do your job or future-proof your organization. And you particularly need to know whether your platforms can nimbly adapt to the rapid evolution of technology and the potentially infinite ways those technologies might be put to use. If you’re not sure, perhaps you should step up to your refrigerator and start browsing the Web for a better approach.
Mike Santori, vice president of product marketing at National Instruments, leads the organizations that are responsible for planning and marketing core measurements, test systems, embedded systems, and key application segments. He focuses on optimizing the NI product portfolio, leading the definition and management of new products, and ensuring high-quality technical marketing. Since joining NI in 1986, he has worked closely with R&D and marketing to define new products and capabilities for NI software, including NI LabVIEW, NI LabWindows/CVI, NI TestStand, and NI VeriStand, as well as develop marketing strategies for NI’s graphical system design approach. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University. He can be reached at [email protected].