I recently had the opportunity to interview Professor Maarten Weyn at the University of Antwerp. If I ever choose to go back to school, I hope my professors are just like him. Here’s why:
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your method of teaching as a professor.
While starting as a researcher, and later as a professor, I was always inspired by the real-world challenges embedded device companies face. In academia and research, you aren’t as obliged to follow the design requirements and user expectations of the industrial world. This is why I want to combine academic with industrial innovation. I don’t want to be a professor that is disconnected from the industry.
I use industrial challenges as inspiration in my curriculum at the Applied Engineering Department of the University of Antwerp and my research within iMinds/MOSAIC group. I ask students to build IoT prototypes combining different sensors, actuators, and communication technologies while taking into account things like low power consumption, form factor limitations, and communications regulations.
How did you get into IoT?
The funny thing is while I was studying as a graduate student, I was doing sensor fusion and programming, yet I tried to avoid all things electronics. But once I became a professor, I realized that once you combine hardware, software, and communication, you can do very interesting work. Designing IoT devices combines all of those disciplines and this appealed to me.
Tell me more about what students can expect in your classes.
In most of my courses, instead of starting my lectures with theory, I start by asking students to find embedded design applications online: they must come back to class with videos, blogs, and forum posts that capture examples of real-world challenges. And they, themselves, must find examples of real-world solutions. In this way, they help design my curriculum. They decide what problems to address and they find the solutions. Together, as a class, we spend time discussing the concepts and theory behind them.
Here’s what I want my students to learn: when designing for embedded IoT, it’s not just a matter of acquiring data and sending it somewhere. They need to think about other design requirements such as energy consumption. How should this device be powered? Will it be a continuous load or pulsed load?
To make things even more challenging, I have them take into consideration environmental challenges, like perhaps designing a water sampling system. Can it fit into a small form factor? Can it survive extreme conditions under water? Ultimately, I imagine students appreciate this learning style.
Sounds like students can get really creative with their design solutions. How do you outfit your lab with the right tools?
We need tools that can be used for a variety of applications and designs, especially when designing for the IoT. We took this into consideration a few years ago when our legacy tools approached end of life; we needed something new.
Through cooperation with another tech company, we had worked on a project using Silicon Labs’ Gecko products around that time. In our case, our learning curve with the Gecko was much shorter than others we had worked with. On top of that, it wasn’t difficult to port our existing APIs from other hardware platforms to the Gecko. It met our requirements for low power and wireless communication, so we adopted it.
Today, our lab is built around the Gecko architecture. We give students their own development tools which include a Gecko development kit with integrated power measurement, sensors and actuators, and an USB scope and logic analyzer. In this way, they have their own individual lab and all for a limited amount of money.
How do you think your students are prepared for the real-world when they graduate from your curriculum?
Most of them already have signed contracts before they graduate. Companies come to us to recruit our students because of their versatility. So yes, I’d say my students are very prepared.
Can you share some of the cool solutions you are working on/have worked on?
An example of some researcher and student prototypes is the DASH7 (a sub-1 Ghz Active RFID/WSN communication technology) extension for tablets to enable accurate localization in a museum. This allows the museum to offer a smart, location-based tour guide for their visitors.
In another interesting project, we built a prototype for bird tracker that weighs less than one gram.
In another application, students built an underwater device for water quality management.
Students are currently working on a version of this device based on the EFM32 Happy Gecko Starter Kit.
Another prototype we have built is a smart badge for events and conferences.
This smart badge eases registration, enables user interaction, gathers continuous feedback from the participants, and provides participant notifications, like when their next session is about to start. On top of that, it’s powered by one coin cell battery
What do you think is the biggest barrier to wide-spread IoT development?
Time! IoT is happening today, but there is a huge battle around what will become THE IoT platform standard. More and more, people are understanding that there cannot and will not be one defacto standard. We must create solutions which are agnostic to multiple technologies.
I also believe that most applications need a winning combination of technologies. There currently is a big gap between IoT prototypes which you see every day on the internet and real products. This is mainly because to make this transition, for example, power consumption, network architecture, and price becomes very important. A good prototype will never become a product if there is not a matching business model.
And lets not even start the discussion of privacy and security at this moment; that might require another interview session of its own. But for now, as long as developers think about privacy in the initial phases of design, hopefully we can solve this issue as well.
What does the future of IoT look like?
The future of IoT is one without IoT. Connected objects will become so ubiquitous and such a commodity that we will not think about the fact that they are objects and that they are connected. It will be obvious that information from sensor, actuators, devices, people, and services are used together to control, monitor, and maintain daily applications.