The Internet of Things (IoT) represents entirely new paradigms for some people, the ultimate in technology advances for others, and -- potentially -- a reversal of technology curves for a third group. For the electronic design automation (EDA) industry, it could be all three!
Whatever people think of IoT, for the world as a whole it could represent a quantum shift, possibly as large as the Internet itself. ABI Research, along with other organizations, suggests that 30-billion devices could be connected to the Internet by 2020 -- about four for every person on the planet. The IoT represents a shift toward the automation of data collection and usage. It will transform existing electronic products and give rise to entirely new concepts. In short, it's a revolution for which we all need to be prepared.
Although the practical realization of the IoT is still in discussion, we see examples today: sensors in car parking spaces in Los Angeles relaying information to in-car navigation; companies that receive information on their product usage habits directly from the product itself; and home automation solutions that monitor almost every device. The consumer awareness of IoT might be low, but it is here, with all its security and privacy issues!
The consensus on IoT technical requirements appears to suggest an architecture of networks of sensors attached to ultra-small, low-powered microcontroller platforms with wireless capability -- all communicating directly or through application controllers with vast data crunching resources in the cloud, or some derivative of this. What does this mean for EDA?
Well, clearly the sharp end of electronic design is going to be those tiny, low-powered, highly capable platforms. In February 2014, Freescale introduced the Kinetsis KL03, which is claimed to be the smallest MCU platform in the world, measuring less than 2mm square -- the size of the dimple on a golf ball. This is small enough to be worn invisibly, eaten in a pill, or included in a golf ball. Although this does not have all the functionality one would assume is required in a full IoT platform, it does represent the advances that are required.
At a minimum, a general-purpose IoT platform will need to include analog blocks along with a processor running the protocol stacks required to manage wireless communication and the Internet Protocol (IP). Sensor-required processing will be included, along with a power control solution, and capabilities for GPS or RFID and Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G Baseband.
The power constraints for such a platform will be minimal with the possibility that power will be "scavenged" from the surrounding environment -- maybe body heat, sunlight, or the sensor itself. It will have to have the power necessary to operate RF circuitry and antennas for outward communication. It will have to be secure, in that no opportunity is provided for malware to be loaded into the memory, thereby potentially infecting the entire system. For some applications, the platform will have to adhere to rigorous safety controls, such as the automotive ISO 26262 standard. By any measure, this is a tough design problem requiring advances in multiple EDA and embedded software solutions.
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