Last month, we had the chance to speak with our customer Christine Horton, VP of Global Marketing for Nonin Medical, a global medical monitoring solutions company that has been leading the way in pulse oximetry technology for the past 30 years. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Nonin has been on an overdrive to meet the surge in demand to design, build and ship personal hundreds of thousands of fingertip pulse oximeters to healthcare facilities and homes to help people better determine virus exposure before debilitating symptoms set in. These small, Bluetooth-based non-invasive oximetry devices can detect decreases in blood oxygen levels, which is one of the first signs that a person has been infected with COVID-19. Christine shares background on the company’s overall mission and insights behind how the valuable medical technology works.
Tell us about Nonin.
Nonin was founded in 1986 by Phil Isaacson, our current Executive Chairman and Chief Technology Officer, with three other engineers. Phil was the visionary and driving force behind the operation, and he continues to be dedicated to our innovation efforts. While Phil was not the inventor of pulse oximetry, he was the first person to envision using a person’s finger without wires as a way to determine oxygen levels. His foresight led Nonin to launch the world’s first fingertip pulse oximeter in 1995.
Creating a non-invasive oximeter device was the goal at the time, and non-invasive devices are still our focus today. The word “Nonin” is actually short for “non-invasive.” Today we are a global company headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, often referred to as “medical alley.” Minneapolis is a center of excellence for medical innovation and technology advances, so it’s an ideal location for us to evolve our medical innovations.
Our mission is to improve the quality of people’s lives throughout the world. We want our highly reliable, accurate, and high-quality devices to be empowered by individuals and healthcare providers to help them make better medical decisions.
Why was the product created?
We developed the technology for the same reason it is so critically important today – to help save lives by enabling pulse oximetry outside of the hospital. The pulse-ox measurement is an early indicator in detecting COVID-19, even before high temperature, of raising a red flag if a person’s oxygen saturation has fallen below healthy levels. Taking this measurement every morning can provide a good baseline while you’re healthy. If you start to see changes, you can address the condition, or potential condition, sooner. We seek to empower self-care in the home, which can allow for earlier detection and may improve the chance for a better outcome.
While Nonin had products before 1995, launching the small fingertip oximeter was a game-changer for healthcare and personal health. Even though we really didn’t talk much about personal health in 1995, there were pockets of people who were paying attention to their pulse-ox levels. Now it is more mainstream, and our current connected devices are evolving rapidly. It also goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has also put pulse oximeters in the spotlight as an easy to use but potentially life-saving tool.
When we talk about personal health, or population health, we talk about a connected product, which is our consumer pulse oximeter fingertip device. Our 3230 Bluetooth Low Energy oximeter allows information to be shared so that you, your physicians, or other people you want to enable can see it. Data can be sent and received from the comfort of your own home, which is such a convenience and helps to free up space in hospitals and healthcare centers. For many patients and family members, it provides tremendous peace of mind.
How does your oximeter device work?
We use a technology called PureSAT®, one of our largest differentiators for quality, accuracy, and reliability. There are a lot of things that can influence a fingertip reading, such as movement and low perfusion in the patient. PureSAT has advanced algorithms that filter out artifacts and interference to provide a true, accurate measurement using infrared light and photodetectors to measure the amount of light getting through the fingertip to calculate the oxygen saturation of a person’s blood.
Accurate readings take just seconds. If the green quality indicator light is on while applying the device to finger, the user knows an accurate and correct measurement is being taken. Our product is FDA-cleared, and this an important distinction to ensure the safety and efficacy of the product.
What are your future plans for the product?
We support the push and pivot to telemedicine. Healthcare is rapidly taking place outside the clinic and hospital settings. Healthcare is happening right where people are at the time they want care. We have a team focused on our connected devices, and we see the market growing rapidly and continuing at a strong and sustained growth rate. For Nonin, this means we’ve increased our capacity for production two-fold to keep up with COVID demand. For the long-term, innovation in the personal health sector is focusing increasingly on home self-care – essentially telemedicine – becoming more mainstream. The rise of telemedicine ensures the continued need for device connectivity to the cloud is crucial for all of our future products.
Why did you choose Silicon Labs?
We use Silicon Labs’ chipsets for the majority of our Bluetooth-enabled products. For the 3230 oximeter product, we use the Bluegiga Legacy Model Bluetooth Low Energy Module. The Silicon Labs module enables us to get our products to market more quickly because they are easily integrated with a pre-certified Bluetooth radio that covers many geographical markets for us. The power-efficiency of the Silicon Labs module is also a very important feature for healthcare solutions like ours.
How has the pandemic changed the demand for your product?
In a word, yes. In fact, we have doubled production from March to June to try and keep up with the demand. We are still - like much of the medical essential and critical suppliers and medical devices - trying to make sure we keep up with the global needs of the healthcare systems. Fortunately, we were able to ramp additional production effectively and hired more staff in a very short amount of time.
From nearly the outset of the pandemic, it became clear that pulse oximeters could provide critical early insight to people before more serious COVID-19 symptoms presented. Patients will come into the ER, and maybe they don’t feel well, or they are a little short of breath, but they will be talking. One of the first signs of being in respiratory distress is having a hard time talking because you have to breathe well to hold a conversation. These patients will be breathing just fine, and two hours later, they will be on a ventilator. We’ve heard a lot of cases about the rapid progression of going from “hey, I can talk, and I kind of feel sick” to “my pulse-ox is now in the 80s or below.” This signifies something very dangerous for a patient. If a patient can see that their oxygen levels are decreasing before symptoms get to that life-threatening point, they may be more likely to get the care they need early on and avoid a potentially life-threatening onset of symptoms.
Right now, we are constantly evaluating what changes are temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent within the healthcare industry. We are closely looking at a variety of indicators, such as medical device access, hospital partnerships, and supply chains every day. Day to day, minute by minute, the pandemic has been a learning lesson for the world.
In addition to ramping production, what other steps have you taken during this uncertain time in our world?
As a medical device organization, we are squarely focused on mitigating risk within our supply chain to ensure we can continue supplying as many devices as possible.
We are a for-profit company, but we made the decision early on during the pandemic that we would not increase pricing, despite the escalating demand for the product.
Where do you see medical IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I’ve been in the medical device field for 28 years, and this is the biggest and most rapid shift I’ve ever seen. The transformation is definitely driven by connected devices, personal health, and telemedicine. We were already moving in that direction, but because of COVID-19, telemedicine is now a proven concept that millions of people have come to trust and rely on. We anticipate telemedicine to remain at the 90% growth rate we see today.
Connectivity in medical devices is no longer a nice to have, and it has rapidly become a requirement. The Internet of Medical Things will become the norm in healthcare because it delivers so much value for a patient’s continuum of care. Medical IoT devices enable doctors and other healthcare professionals to track and treat a patient throughout the entirety of their life.
The data derived from medical IoT is also extremely valuable for healthcare economics and health insurance payers. If you have a finite amount of money, how can you best use the funds to care for the maximum number of people in the highest quality way? For example, if a doctor knows that you are not in crisis and can see from your pulse-ox level that the medication or therapy administered at home is working, you do not need to come into the emergency room. This frees up healthcare workers to give people care who really do need it, which ultimately benefits everyone.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Russi Netto, Co-founder and Commercial Director, and Airton Hess Jr., Co-founder and R&D Director of SmartGreen, a Brazilian IoT company focused on sustainable smart lighting and smart metering automation solutions. Headquartered near Sao Paulo, SmartGreen works closely with cities and utilities to build end-to-end IoT integrated solutions, such as the 200,000 smart street lights the company is planning to deploy in Brazil by 2022. While the majority of SmartGreen’s customers are currently located in Brazil, Daniel and Airton share their valuable insights on the growth drivers their company is seeing in municipal lighting and where they see the potential for smart cities in the future.
Tell us about SmartGreen, how did it get its start?
The company was founded in 2012 after merging with another company called Radio Telecom. Today we have 35 employees. From the beginning, our goal has been to offer an integrated IoT solution to customers that encompasses hardware, communications, gateways, the processing layer, and the software and apps needed to manage a device.
Who is your competition?
We have two kinds of competitors. We have local start-ups, but their technology is not as mature as our solutions, and they cannot scale to the level of devices that SmartGreen can handle. We also run into international competitors from time to time, but these companies tend to have challenges entering the Brazilian market due to local pricing and technological barriers.
What sets SmartGreen apart from other companies with similar offerings?
We can operate more devices in our mesh network using Zigbee 2.4GHz than the competition and remain competitive on price. We also have close relationships with our customers. Most of our lighting customers have limited technology expertise. Therefore, they depend on us heavily because of our technical expertise, and this dynamic helps us establish strong customer relationships.
What is driving the demand for lighting projects?
We see some of the demands driven by regulatory issues. However, we also see a lot of the demands coming from city managers who are interested in automating city infrastructure to improve overall operations of their city, and municipal lighting is a good place to start. City managers value the energy savings and the reduced workload for fuel operations teams.
Tell us about your commercial lighting product.
Our primary smart light product is the SGIP7, which replaces the photocell and gives the luminary the intelligence it needs to be automated. We sell the hardware, gateway, and endpoint for street light projects and offer SaaS packages, including software licenses, upgrades, cloud capabilities, and ongoing technical support. Our network communications standards are high, but even if the network goes down for some reason, our devices can continue to work and communicate with other sensors and devices. The Zigbee mesh network, combined with Silicon Labs’ wireless technology, enables the sensors and devices to communicate with each other without the gateway.
What about your smart metering solutions?
For smart metering, we sell two different kinds of endpoints to utilities – network interface cards and smart meter modules. We have two types of modules for residential usage, including external modules that connect to standard meters and modules for smart meters. Our smart meter modules remotely read energy consumption for utilities, which reduces the need for utility workers to be dispatched to residential homes for readings and turning on/off electricity connections.
How is business right now for lighting and metering applications?
We see significant growth in our smart lighting business, while smart metering projects move more slowly. Utilities have a more complex decision-making process, and they are still waiting for a wireless standard for smart metering to emerge, so between that dynamic and this space being fairly regulated, projects can be delayed and/or slow to start. Yet, smart lighting purchasers are not concerned with technology standards but are focused on performance and cost benefits instead. Of course, they want the technology to be certified, but smart lighting is not regulated like smart metering, so we see a lot more activity and growth.
Why did you decide to use Silicon Labs?
We use Silicon Labs’ first-generation Zigbee module after coming across this Bluetooth chip when we acquired Telegesis. We recently decided to upgrade our IC modules and tested several other competing devices, and Silicon Labs performed the best. Therefore we plan to upgrade to the MGM13P Mighty Gecko Zigbee Module in the near future. Silicon Labs solutions have always worked very well for us.
Zigbee modules continue to be our preferred protocol for our products. We have tested quite a few different protocols in the past but ran into performance and cost issues. The Zigbee protocol and architecture, along with Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth mesh module, works exceptionally well for street lighting applications because of its reliable high performance, low power, and built-in security capabilities.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
We are excited about our energy management applications in the enterprise market and see a great deal of potential in the future. Because our technology platform is already built into many Brazilian city infrastructures and the contracts are long-term (lasting anywhere from 20-30 years), we see a major opportunity to evolve into a multi-service network for cities. Our municipal customers want to explore other automated services on our platform, such as using environmental, traffic, and utility sensors to help them operate their cities more sustainably and efficiently. Silicon Labs’ Mighty Module solution is helping SmartGreen make this extension of our customer offering possible because of its cost-effective performance abilities.
We recently had the chance to speak with Craig Henricksen, VP of Marketing for Kinestral Technologies, a natural light management company based in Hayward, California. Kinestral has perfected the smart window experience after designing electrochromic glass technology that uses artificial intelligence (AI) and the OpenThread wireless protocol to adjust natural light within buildings and homes continuously. The smart windows are based on Silicon Labs Wireless Gecko technology and can reduce building energy usage by up to 20 percent, an amazing feat for any type of product. Below, Craig shares how the company got its start, how the technology works, and some glimpses of potential future applications.
Kinestral’s smart windows are a great example of smart home solutions Silicon Labs and our partners are working on every day. We encourage you to register for our Smart Home Webinar on June 10, 2020, where you can learn how to build smart home products that work across any ecosystem. And if you missed it live, you can always watch it again on-demand.
How did the idea for a smart window come about?
Our two founders got together in 2010 after each having success at other material companies to create disruptive technology on their own. Howard Turner, now CTO, who has a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and Sam Bergh, our COO, who has a Ph.D. in Engineering, discovered their combined expertise fit well with a class of products called electrochromic technology. The process creates a smart window by applying a voltage or electrical impulse to a class of materials that causes a chemical reaction and controls light passing through a substrate. At the time, the technology had been around for 20 plus years, but several flaws were limiting its adoption by the market.
Price, of course, was an issue, but the primary reason was related to performance. Previous smart window technologies in a clear state tended to be yellow and/or honey-colored, then as they were tinted, the glass would become blueish and/or purple. The tinting process was also slow, often taking up to 30-40 minutes to take place. When I started at the company five years ago, I realized the founders had spent their first five years at the company perfecting the materials. When I joined, they showed me a piece of glass that looked like normal glass in a clear state, but it changed to a cool gray color extremely fast. Since then, we’ve been focused on commercializing the technology.
Can you tell me about the product?
Halio is a smart-tinting glass based on advanced electrochromic technology that is controlled through a building automation system, a home automation system, a smartphone app, or our Halio dashboard. We built a cloud infrastructure system to manage the AI to control the building and glass environment. The window looks like natural glass, but it tints to cool gray shades when the sun gets a little too hot or a little too bright. We have been shipping Halio for four years from our pilot plant in Hayward. We now have a new large-scale manufacturing facility that can produce up to 5 million square feet of glass per year, and it has been shipping products for the past year and a half.
How do you differentiate yourself from competitors?
Halio offers aesthetic differences, such as how we removed a lot of the unwanted color in the clear and tinting states. With 60 patents, our glass also adjusts 10x faster than the competition with much more uniformity because we invested in a process that allows the tint to be distributed across any size panel. The fact that it is cloud-based reduces the need for in-building infrastructure. Another major differentiator is our high-yield manufacturing process.
Who are your primary customers right now?
We are currently selling our product in more than 30 countries, and we have numerous commercial and residential customers. One of our largest customers is a Southern California based REIT. We also have a strategic partnership with the largest glass manufacturer in the world, AGC Inc.
What is the primary driver for customers buying your product?
When I first started at Kinestral, I assumed it would be all about energy efficiency. But for early movers in the energy-efficient building space, they were already addressing energy improvements with LEED building standards. Interestingly, the big driver we see among customers is the amenity of natural light - the connection to the outdoors and the people inside. This experience within a building is the leading reason for adoption. The energy benefits cement the deal, but energy savings is not the primary reason for the initial purchase.
How exactly does Halio work?
If you’re lucky, your office building has a view, and you have something nice to look at every day. In the morning when you get there, it’s dark, and there are no blinds on the windows, as blinds aren’t needed. Instead of being blinded by the light when the sun comes up, Halio AI predicts when the sun rises based on the building location, time of year, angle of the sun, and other factors. People inside don’t need to do anything for the light to be adjusted; they can still enjoy the sun coming up through windows, but the tint level is comfortable - thermally and glare-wise. Throughout the day, as the light changes outside, the façade will automatically adjust to keep people inside comfortable.
Can people still look out of the windows?
Yes, the dynamic is no different than traditional glass except the tint, but it is a bit more difficult to see in. Many customers also use the glass for indoor glass conference rooms, which can be manually tinted depending on privacy needs.
Tell me about your relationship with Silicon Labs – how do we fit into your product?
We use Silicon Labs’ Wireless Gecko SoCs throughout our Halio product. Our design team has a long history with Silicon Labs after working with technology at other companies, as well.
Originally, our product was based on the Thread protocol, but we are now moving to OpenThread. The cohesion on this move with Silicon Labs and the company’s ability to support this protocol was important for us. All of our units must talk to each other wirelessly, and Silicon Labs provides the underlying mesh network making all of this happen. Our system has numerous nodes, and when you’re putting infrastructure into a building, you need to have confidence that you’re not going to have connectivity or debugging issues.
Did you have any design challenges while creating the product?
The two big ones were low-power and the robustness of the mesh network itself. We offload most of the heavy lifting to the cloud, but we push instructions down to the individual nodes, and the nodes must be smart enough to follow directions (and have enough processing power). At the same time, the nodes must be low power and have a robust wireless connection. We get all of these critical functions in the Silicon Labs Wireless Gecko offering.
Do you anticipate any regulatory changes around climate change that could affect your future growth?
The origins of the company were not necessarily about saving the world. We set out to disrupt a market. But as we dug into the product, we realized we could make a big impact. What other building product out there can save 10-15 percent energy just by installing? This scenario isn’t a typical find. Not only do we provide a great product, but we contribute to sustainability, as smart glass is just a better way to design a building. And anyone who has spent time in a naturally lit building can attest to the fact that you feel it right away. It’s a better place to be and a better place to work.
The commercial market is ripe with opportunity, and it has been easier for us because competitors had already educated the market before we entered it. But where we see a great deal of excitement is in the residential market – people see the glass and want it in their kitchens and homes. The other market on the horizon is transportation, such as cars, airplanes, and trains.
Where do you see the future of IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
In architecture, you often hear about the trend of building personalization using technology. Still, I’ve been in marketing for 15 years, and that’s always been the case – the human need for individualism. But we’ve all had the experience of sitting next to someone with a different temperature profile than us, where the person is too hot, or too cold, or the room is too bright or too dark. Then you look at IoT, and the cost curve of technologies addressing these space personalization needs is coming down, so I think we’ll see a lot more personalized space technologies for people that actually travel with people - where space conforms to make you comfortable versus you adjusting to space.
The technology exists now, but today it’s more of an integration challenge.
To learn more about how Silicon Labs can help you develop your smart home project. Register for our Smart Home Webinar on June 10, 2020, where you can learn how to build smart home products that work across any ecosystem. And if you missed it live, you can always watch it again on-demand.
Last month, we had the opportunity to speak with the CEO and founder of OnAsset Intelligence Adam Crossno. OnAsset Intelligence is a leading provider of supply chain monitoring and tracking technology that helps companies track high-value or mission-critical assets across the global supply chain. The company works across a wide range of sectors and tracks everything – from life-saving immunotherapy treatments and vaccines to perishables and high-value goods. The company has created Bluetooth sensing devices that track valuable assets throughout an item’s travel to give asset owners continuous visibility into the object’s location and shipping conditions, along with a guarantee the item is getting to the right location.
Adam explains how the company started, how the technology works, and why the adoption of asset-tracking technology has ramped up dramatically in the past few years.
Can you provide some examples of the types of mission-critical assets you track?
We do a lot of work in the life sciences, electronics, pharmaceutical, and food industries. We track items not only requiring rapid transportation but some form of conditioning involving temperature handling parameters.
We are among the few asset tracking providers in the world that are fully compliant with airline regulations, and the aviation supply chain carries 35% of world trade by value. Our customers are diverse, from manufacturers to logistics companies and airlines, to specialist transportation security providers. We handle anything you can imagine that someone wants to ship that is mission-critical or high value. Customers are willing to put additional solutions in place to have visibility beyond what logistics providers typically offer. Some of our assets are extremely fragile, such as human organs for transplant that must travel within a matter of hours, and clinical trials with cutting-edge apheresis treatments that must be processed and returned to the patient in less than 48 hours. We also support the transfer of high-value servers and IT assets that need a guaranteed secure chain of custody and other theft-prone items, including truckloads of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms and even items such as high-end military equipment with special conditioning and access requirements.
How did OnAsset Intelligence get into this business?
We found our way into the market starting with RFID technology in manufacturing for visibility of goods and process flows inside a facility, and then ultimately grew into providing the same level of visibility for shipments. As you can imagine, there are numerous items within the global supply chain where the people shipping product want better visibility than entering a tracking number into a web site to see the last place the bar code was scanned. Our customers expect their items to be connected and to be visible at any point and time during shipment – that’s the service we provide.
How does your product work?
The highlight of our solution is the SENTRY, which is a fully autonomous, reusable tracking and sensing device that can be applied all the way to pallet and package level. To support the SENTRY, we recently launched Sentinel tags. The SENTRY coordinates and reports the status of a shipment while also acting as a gateway for Sentinel tags. Even if the shipment may have 50 or 100 pieces, a Sentinel captures environmental parameters for each piece, and that data is transmitted to our cloud platform through the SENTRY. The SENTRY can also be installed as a fixed gateway at origin or destination to enable Sentinel tags to be read when they hit certain supply chain milestones.
What makes this solution unique is it can be deployed at a facility or can work on the move and create seamless visibility. We are capable of moving high volumes at high velocity because we can read tens of thousands of Sentinel tags very quickly, which is critical as some of these distribution centers that have cross-docking operations and are moving hundreds of thousands of individual packages and assets through a facility. We also gain secondary benefit from the network of fixed SENTRY gateways because they provide real-time sensor information for facilities monitoring. Our cloud platform captures this data and provides a dashboard delivering real-time location and condition while alerting upon any excursions detected.
What do the Sentinel tags look like?
The tags come in a variety of sizes, depending on what the customer wants to do. The most popular size is about two-thirds the footprint of a credit card. We even have smaller devices with a slightly larger footprint than the coin cell battery powering it. We also have quite a few customers that integrate Sentinel technology into other assets, such as smart packaging and intelligent containers.
Our tags also work directly with smartphones and other Bluetooth enabled devices. Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth SoCs allow us to leverage all of these compatible devices that exist within the industrial environment. We are fortunate to be in a position where we can leverage this standardized technology instead of requiring our customers to buy a highly proprietary solution. Bluetooth becomes the bridge, providing a guaranteed compatibility path, and customers don’t need to worry about being engineered into a corner.
How has the market reacted to your asset tracking technology?
From the outset, we were a bit ahead of the curve. Most people were in a tire-kicking mode or were skeptical about the visibility we offered and struggled to recognize the value that our data delivers. But the smartphone revolution convinced people this technology could perform accurately. Ever since then, our growth has been steady, and in the last three years, we’ve experienced our most explosive year-over-year growth to date. Potential customers used to debate if they should deploy the technology or not, but now it’s not a question of if, it’s about which partner will we pick and how quickly can we roll it out. Online retailers are out there providing visibility for shipments arriving at customers’ doors, and people expect the commercial supply chain to be doing the same thing.
Why did you select Silicon Labs’ wireless technology for your solution?
Our initial exchanges with Silicon Labs’ staff were warm and accommodating, while some of the other players in the market were more standoffish. But really, Silicon Labs’ wireless product (EFR32 Bluetooth LE SoCs) performs better than other options. We tested all of the alternatives, and at the end of the day, performance wins. And Silicon Labs’ product, in conjunction with our designs, outperformed everything else. Not only did we enjoy the relationship and spirit of innovation and your product roadmap direction, but Silicon Labs simply has a better product.
Did you have any design challenges when building the product?
Our biggest challenge was network density. Bluetooth is a great technology, but it’s not known for its range and density characteristics. Bluetooth opens the door for its ubiquitous global compatibility, but it required some special engineering to make it work in industrial scenarios. These scenarios involve heavy equipment surrounded by other heavy metal and machinery. It’s not hard to design devices and conduct a small-scale trial and show customers you can capture data, but where you really differentiate yourself is deploying technology at scale in a demanding industrial environment. We also tackled real-world challenges, such as provisioning 12,000 devices in rapid succession and ensuring the data is captured, and nothing is lost when the devices transition from one location to another. It’s also important to prove in these settings that the people managing the process can do so easily, especially as many workers are often apprehensive about adopting new technology in day-to-day operations.
Have you worked with any COVID-19 related customers?
I initially thought business might slow down during the pandemic, but it’s been busier than expected. Our customers have shifted to moving a lot of COVID-related material, and we have also been tracking cutting-edge vaccine trials. Many of our airline customers are now adapting aircraft to move more cargo. The focus has shifted, but the need for real-time visibility has only increased. The pandemic is highlighting the value of this level of visibility because companies that were prepared with technology have been able to move product more quickly and offer specific information on location and delivery. But companies that are not forward-leaning on technology have experienced strains because there are so many issues impacting final-mile delivery right now, such as personnel available for transport. Many of the benefits of our tracking technology are being magnified under the current pandemic environment.
Where do you see the IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Pressure always exists to bring solution costs down. Ideally, our customers want every single unit tracked if they can afford it, but that can sometimes be cost-prohibitive. Not long ago, if someone was looking to do this, they used a fully-featured device with its own cellular communication capabilities. Now we see a future where many wireless sensors will work together collaboratively to get the job done, making each one less complex and more cost-efficient. IoT is going drive proliferation of less complex, more cost-effective devices used in much larger volumes rolling up to more feature-rich devices. Today our technology can support tens of thousands of units sitting at a dock door or port, whereas in 3-5 years, I see it being millions of units.
Additionally, there is an increasing focus on AI and supply chain automation, and our solutions play heavily in this direction. To make more efficient decisions and self-manage certain aspects of the supply chain process, more assets and shipments need to be connected and communicate with each other – this is an evolution that we are calling Cognitive Logistics. We’re excited to be collaborating with Silicon Labs to make it a reality.
Recently we had the opportunity to speak with Gabi Daniely, Chief Strategy and Marketing Officer of CoreTigo, an Israeli start-up founded by two wireless engineers with experience from companies such as Texas Instruments and Apple. In the two and a half years since CoreTigo’s inception, the company has driven the IO-Link Consortium to launch a new wireless standard developed specifically for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and mission critical environments. The new IO-Link Wireless protocol helps manufacturing companies solve the universal challenge of reliable wireless solutions fit for harsh industrial requirements on the factory floor for reducing complexity. CoreTigo enables solutions that cannot be implemented with cables, increasing flexibility and mobility and adding intelligence anywhere in the most cost-effective manner. Gabi explains how CoreTigo came about and how early adopters of the standard are using it to improve their manufacturing processes and yields.
Tell me about the origin of CoreTigo, how did the company get its start?
Our two company founders are veterans of the wireless market. Our CEO ran the wireless business unit for Texas Instruments, and our VP of R&D spent time designing and developing wireless solutions at both Texas Instruments and Apple. As wireless experts, they both saw a void in the industrial market for mission-critical wireless networks. Typical wireless networks, such as Zigbee, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, are not designed for meeting the harsh demands at the control, or actuator, level of factory automation. In these environments, machines require low latency, cable-grade reliability, and a deterministic and scalable network to manage dozens of devices within a machine area.
Based on these needs, our founders approached the IO-Link Consortium, and along with its members defined the IO-Link Wireless protocol, a new reliable wireless communication solution tailored for factory automation. With that vision in mind, CoreTigo was able to secure $14 million in Series A funding in 2018, and the IO-Link Wireless standard was officially launched in 2018 with the support of the consortium and many key industrial leading companies.
How are industrial companies using the new wireless protocol?
Machine builders, industrial equipment manufacturers and manufacturing plants are starting to use the protocol across many industrial applications where cabled systems were previously used, which greatly improves the flexibility and agility of the machinery and reduces complexity. Popular areas where IO-Link Wireless solutions are being deployed include transport track systems to reduce changeover and tooling setup time, rotating and dynamic components to add intelligence, machine retrofitting and condition monitoring for pressure, level and flow sensors and end-of-arm devices, such as grippers or vacuum pumps, on robots and collaborative robots to improve flexibility and reduce complexity.
What are the major drivers for industrial connectivity?
Industry 4.0 is the underlying macro trend driving many of the IIoT demands. Companies are seeing the convergence of information technology (IT) with operational factory floor technology and are assessing ways to update their systems and gain major efficiencies. Industrial giants are looking for ways to improve functionality of existing and aging equipment without adding more cables. As we often hear in the industry, cables are the enemy of flexibility and modularity. At the same time, companies are looking to simplify processes while increasing efficiencies as much as possible, and wireless connectivity helps them do this effectively and design new solutions and machines that were not feasible beforehand with cables.
How does Silicon Labs fit into your technology offering?
We are currently using low-power EFR32 Wireless Gecko modules within our TigoAir Low Power modules, which extends IO-Link Wireless to support low power applications even with batteries with a lifetime of 5-10 years. The IO-Link Wireless stack for devices is ready for stack integration with other vendors of industrial equipment and devices. We have plans to eventually deploy Wireless Gecko technology across all of our other solutions. An FCC/CE certified radio module will be ready by the end of the year, thus enabling smoother and faster integrations. Silicon Labs gives us the low-power processing and connectivity we need without adding another MCU or wireless SoC to the architecture, reducing our costs and footprint and keeping the design simple. Silicon Labs’ global support teams in France and Israel. have also provided us great support.
Where do you see IIoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I see a great deal of potential in the future to reduce the complexity associated with industrial manufacturing. Finding easier ways to extract data flow information from industrial processes and connect it with enterprise systems can deliver major efficiency gains for industrial operators. Many companies struggle with successfully pulling data out of the factory floor and visually seeing areas of improvement with enterprise technologies. Then when it’s time to make the improvements, it’s just as difficult to integrate intelligence back onto the factory floor. This is where IoT technology stands to make a tremendous positive impact on the industrial market.
Last month, we had the chance to speak with David Simpson, Chief Product Officer, and IoT Product Manager Logan Stover, at Enseo. If you’ve ever stayed in a hotel room and watched an on-demand movie or streaming service on the TV, you’ve probably used the Texas-based company’s technology.
Enseo reaches more than 84 million people annually through their platform. A few years ago, the company expanded its hospitality offering into safety and created an IoT employee safety device using Silicon Labs’ wireless technology. The new product contributed to an industry-wide conversation in hospitality around steps employers can take to help prevent housekeeping staff assault incidences.
Today, four years after launching the system, the MadeSafe® product is used by many housekeeping employees across many of the largest hotel brands, including Marriott. David and Logan share some details below about the company and how the safety product came about.
Can you tell me a little bit about Enseo?
Today we have four core products in one platform, including in-room entertainment, high-speed Internet, IoT energy management and room control, and the MadeSafe employee safety system. The demand for this platform grew quickly, and we have ventured into other adjacent markets, including education, hospitals and government. Enseo got its start almost 20 years ago after creating one of the first TV channel scroll guides for cable TV. Soon after that, Enseo entered the hospitality market.
How did MadeSafe come about?
One reason why MadeSafe is so useful is because hotel employees are often alone during the work day while servicing hundreds of rooms. Several years ago, the press was focused on a sexual assault case involving a New York City housekeeper and a prominent international politician. The case garnered a great deal of media attention about sexual assault in the hospitality sector. Shortly after the case, several New York City hotels approached us about designing an employee safety product. Enseo deployed the first generation of MadeSafe at the J.W. Marriott Essex House in 2015.
According to the Center for American Progress, 25 percent of all sexual assault charges filed are in industries with a large number of service sector workers who are often women.
By late 2017, the #metoo movement brought these issues to the attention of everyone. Hoteliers and cities began creating ordinances, while unions brought the issue to a higher level of attention, inspiring several communities and the American Hotel and Lodging Association to be more aggressive in industry requirements around safety. Today most hotels are committed to installing this technology by the end of 2020. The hospitality industry is leading other industries in proactively addressing these safety concerns.
How does the product work?
Each employee wears a small wireless device that looks similar to a car key fob. If the employee feels threatened, they simply press the button, and a geolocation signal is immediately sent to designated safety personnel, showing exactly where the employee is located on a 3D property map. Employees can only be tracked when the button is pressed, which was an important privacy element we built into the product.
Why did you use Silicon Labs to help design the product?
Silicon Labs’ multiprotocol functionality and performance, along with cost, were the key differentiators for us while considering the design of our latest generation of MadeSafe product. Also, of key importance to us was the multiple protocol capability to keep options open for later generations of the MadeSafe system and other IoT future products. The Silicon Labs multiprotocol Wireless Gecko platform was easy for Enseo developers to use, allowing us to incorporate both Zigbee and Bluetooth protocols into the product. The platform’s capabilities to enable over the air updates and the Simplicity Studio development kit were also critical to our development team, as it helped simplify and speed the design process. Our design team, who was already familiar with Silicon Labs systems, also liked the scalability and flexibility of the software ecosystem.
Where do you see IoT headed in the next 5-8 years?
IoT security needs more attention from both silicon and software providers. Hardware, in particular, has a key role to play in security, but up until now, hardware hasn’t had a pivotal role. We see this changing in the future. The future of IoT will bring an enormous number of new devices into the market, many of which we have not even begun to imagine. While cost pressures will be substantial moving forward, we will need flexible and innovative software to meet pricing and development cost demands.
Last month, we spoke with the co-founders of IOTAS, Sce Pike, CEO and Jeremy Steinhauer, VP of Data Services and learned how multi-family residential buildings, otherwise known as apartments, have recently stepped up their smart home game. IOTAS, which stands for IoT as a Service, has been a key player in making this happen after creating a smart home platform for apartment renters several years ago. The platform, built for residents, property owners and installers, provides residents with a seamless IoT solution that monitors apartment unit systems, including thermostats, motion detectors, security and lighting. The solution is so easy to use renters have been asking to take it with them when moving out of their apartment.
IOTAS has grown rapidly since its inception four years ago and was recently recognized by the Bay Area’s Start-up Grind as the 2019 Start-up of the Year. The company’s install base has grown to 100,000 smart devices in more than 70 communities.
Read more below about our conversation with IOTAS and how the company tapped into a major new market opportunity for smart home technologies.
How did IOTAS get started?
Sce: In 2014, a real estate developer in Portland approached me and explained he was looking for technology differentiation for his apartment property. My background is in mobile design development, and I had recently sold my first mobile consumer company, so the idea of focusing on the technology experience in the real estate market was intriguing. I quickly realized the $5 billion real estate market had the potential to scale a new technology extremely fast.
I went ahead and recruited Jeremy as my co-founder and we immediately built out a technology solution focused exclusively on apartments. We installed 40 smart home devices in a 1,000 square foot apartment unit to create a true smart home experience, not something that was cumbersome to put together. We wanted to create a move-in ready solution that just worked. We then took the idea out on a real estate conference roadshow, and it became obvious fast that we had created the next amenity commercial property owners were seeking. Property owners knew they had to provide technological advancements in their buildings to meet the demands of millennials and GenZ.
Once we received this feedback, we scaled the solution exponentially over the next few years, with our installs growing by 500 percent last year alone. We see the potential of disruption for all multi-family properties within five years, with all of them having some level of smart technology.
How did the real estate market know they needed this?
Sce: The real estate industry is 13 percent of the U.S. GDP and does a great deal of collective research. Property companies understand their own demographic very well, and at the time they were seeing technology become pervasive across their tenants’ lives, but the shift wasn’t reflected in apartment buildings. The industry saw this void as an opportunity to create an edge for their properties. Five years ago, when we first entered the market, the conferences were only starting to talk about smart home technology, but now smart apartments are mainstream, and the vast majority of properties are allocating budgets to incorporate smart home technologies.
Tell me about your product.
Jeremy: We’re focused on making the smart home experience extremely easy for residents and property managers. We work with property developers and managers to install smart devices in apartments with a suite of applications, including door locks, thermostats, light switches, power outlets and sensors to monitor leaks, motion, temperature, etc. Residents simply download the app to their phone and get a smart home out of the box. We also created automated defaults, like “out for the day” or “welcome home,” which set up preferred systems for that specific time period.
The second application is geared towards property managers to improve efficiencies – it’s the tool managers use to link the residential units and create their own automations for vacant units, such as temperature, appliances and lighting. Property managers can use it to immediately set-up for tours of certain units by turning on lights, setting the thermostat to a comfortable temperature, etc. on and off before or after. The application also has alerts for property managers if something is amiss, such as extremely high or low temperatures or humidity levels for vacant units.
The third application is the installer and/or auto-provisioning application. During our initial foray into smart apartment, we were installing 40 devices and quickly learned that commissioning that many devices to a gateway was a painful process and not scalable. We then spent the next few years perfecting the provisioning process. Now we have several auto-provisioning patents, where we have reduced the time to install devices for an installer from one hour to 15 minutes.
The final application is our internal application – how we administrate the system and create the data around the buildings and users.
Have you ever thought about going beyond multi-family homes?
Sce: From the onset, we have been focused on the multi-family market, for a variety of reasons. The economy of scale is a big reason – we didn’t want to sell one device at a time, we wanted to sell to buildings and make installations quickly. It’s much easier to design a solution for multiple homogenous units versus custom homes.
Though we have had many residents leave their apartments and ask how they can take IOTAS with them – so much so, that we’re now working on a way for residents to be able to upgrade their systems and go on a subscription basis to take IOTAS into their new home. This new solution is on our roadmap and we’re hoping to offer it by the end of this year.
How does Silicon Labs fit into your product?
Right now, we’re using the Z-Wave 500 Series Module solution and we are using the Z-Wave 700 Series for our next generation product to be rolled out later this year. We’re also considering using Zigbee in the future for wireless, so we’re using a Silicon Labs Zigbee module as we figure out a potential software stack for a Zigbee-based application. All of the end nodes are controlled by Z-Wave; we don’t have any internal connections over Wi-Fi. The Wi-Fi is purely used to connect the hub to our cloud.
Why did you decide to use the Z-Wave hub?
Jeremy: We started with Zigbee, but the standards were not there yet, as the devices weren’t all interoperable. The decision to use Z-Wave was also driven by the cost of each product. Having the ability to work with something like Z-Wave right out of the box with standardized protocols was a big selling point, as well.
Where do you IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Jeremy: We’re extremely focused on the user experience, and we knew early on that we didn’t just want to be remote control for the home. In that same vein, I think that’s where IoT is headed – the more interconnectivity among devices, the richer the home experience can be. We see this going beyond the home, where people can take the experience with them. The smart home experience isn’t just about building profiles around people within the four walls that they live in, but taking the experience everywhere they go in the living world, such as their car, workplace, hotels, and even vacations.
Earlier this year, we spoke with Ryan Kincaid, an Allegion global hardware architect, who focuses on connectivity and the security of embedded systems. Allegion is a long-standing and trusted brand in mechanical security, with a 100 + year history of building locks and entry systems for residential and commercial buildings. With more than 30 brands in 130 countries, Allegion has been specializing in security since long before electronics of any kind even existed.
True to its pioneering roots, Allegion sees tremendous opportunity in IoT to create even more value within its product portfolio. Over the past few years, the company has been working closely with Silicon Labs to add connectivity to a broad spectrum of smart home and commercial security products in its portfolio.
In the blog below, Ryan shares insight behind some of these new products and use cases for access control technology, including enabling features like granting delivery personnel access into homes without the need for the homeowner to be on-site.
Tell me a little bit about Allegion.
Many people are familiar with Allegion’s brands without even knowing it. For example, if you look at your key chain, there’s probably a key that says Schlage on it, which is one of our core U.S. brands. Schlage can also be found on exterior and interior locks in your house. When you walk through an entry way of a commercial building, people often push our Von Duprin exit devices to open the door (that’s the bar running across the door) or use a credential reader to gain access. Many people first think of these brands as mechanical, but what is happening in the industry is a migration of electrifying mechanical devices. We are adding in connectivity, sensor technologies, and fairly high-end embedded security to make them intelligent.
Can you tell me about how Allegion is working with Silicon Labs?
We use Silicon Labs in a variety of different products, especially related to connectivity and our connected home solutions. We started using Silicon Labs’ technology through the acquisition of BlueGiga and quickly saw the benefit of the support Silicon Labs provided. We have gone on to leverage products like the Silicon Labs Mighty Gecko SoC and others over time. For example, we recently worked with Silicon Labs to develop a Zigbee-certified smart home lock, a solution great for people who want in-home delivery. A homeowner can grant access to a third-party, such as Amazon, and allow that delivery service access on a limited basis to that person’s door (which can also be paired up with a camera). When the delivery person arrives at the home, he or she can unlock the home and lock on their way out.
Another product we launched recently is a networked version of an exit device that allows remote monitoring and access control in commercial settings. This product utilizes the Blue Gecko SoC and is targeted specifically at the K-12 educational vertical. We call it a safe school application, as it enhances perimeter security by providing electronic override of mechanical solutions for an emergency facility lockdown. This product can be invaluable to school administrators as prior to this type of technology, a human would have to go around to every single access point and ensure it was securely locked.
What are some of the major product design challenges you typically run into?
Time to market is always a challenge. We have found Silicon Labs’ offering of both SoC and pre-certified module (FCC certified modules) solutions especially valuable to us. The pre-certified modules accelerate our time to market because we can circumvent some of the compliance and certification processes. For example, the Zigbee product I mentioned earlier was not a new technology to the industry, but it was new for our product line, and being able to use the tools and certification support Silicon Labs provided really sped up our product delivery. One of our other largest challenges is decreasing our time to market while maintaining our high standards for safety and security.
How important is security and how do you see security evolving with IoT?
Security is priority number one – there is no question about that. For example, at schools, connected devices allow for fast and safe lockdowns. At home, you can get an alert when your child arrives home from school and enters the door, allow temporary access to a visitor, and verify that the door is locked before you turn out the lights.
Our reputation is built on security, so when it comes to adding electronics to mechanical solutions, our security mindset comes with us. We have added roles within the company that specifically focus on cybersecurity. When we look to products that we’re using within our embedded system, we’re constantly refreshing our security requirements around those pieces. This includes enabling security updates in the field. When we look for silicon or firmware partners, security is always the first thing we review.
One of the things we want consumers to be mindful of is the market is full of products touting home security, but some of these are companies don’t necessarily have the history or track record that we do.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I think consumers are becoming more and more aware of security. They might not know all of the encryption standards and data privacy laws, but they’re getting to the point where they are asking sophisticated security questions, and people developing IoT products need to meet these new demands. This will drive new security standards, data storage requirements and computing at the edge.
There will be an increase in consumers questioning a product’s digital longevity. How long will this be supported? Will I continue to receive updates? Will the pricing model change? To be successful in the IoT market for the long run, manufacturers must have scalability and sustainability product plans in place before delivering each and every IoT device to market.
Finally, we will see a demand for a better user experience in IoT. Devices need to be easily commissioned and seamlessly work within the intended ecosystem. This could include sharing data with a smart devices or cloud services. Products constantly need to be checked for compatibility due to the rapid change in these technologies. Products genuinely need to address customer needs without becoming an annoyance.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the CTO and co-founder of Notion, Ryan Margoles to talk about the release of their Gen 3 sensors and how the IoT will impact homeowners in ways that go beyond just convenience.
Tell us about the history of Notion. What was the impetus for starting the company and what were the immediate challenges?
The idea for Notion was literally sparked by a sounding alarm in the middle of the night. My wife and I had just adopted a puppy and our carbon monoxide alarm went off at 2am; it was a pretty jarring experience. We jumped out of bed and opened all the windows and exited the house. Fortunately, it was only the furnace fizzling out. The next day, I called my business partner and childhood friend, Brett, with the idea to make a Wi-Fi connected smoke/carbon monoxide alarm. We set out to learn more about the value proposition of a smart smoke alarm, and how we could make it valuable for customers. We learned quickly that people loved the use case, but were not used to buying smoke or CO2 alarms; they are usually already installed in the apartment or in the home you buy. The product evolved and coalesced into a concept of a single sensor that could do multiple things: listen for smoke/CO2 alarms, detect movement, doors and windows opening/closing, freezing temperature, and leak detection. The competition offered several single-function sensors: a door sensor, a temperature sensor or a leak sensor. In our opinion, this was a barrier to entry for people who aren’t as tech savvy. We knew we had found the right idea to pursue.
What is your background?
I have a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Colorado. My background is in product development, manufacturing and big data. I spent most of my early career with Titleist and Callaway developing smart golf clubs.
When you set out to do this, size and battery power were obvious considerations. What were some other known design challenges?
There were three challenges on the onset: 1.) Battery usage: Battery power and replacing batteries every three months is tough for a customer to get used to; it’s a hassle. Our Gen 1 kit had a coin-cell battery that was difficult to swap out. We learned over time that just two AAA alkaline batteries were important since they are readily available and easy to change out. 2.) Ingress protection: Devices that are placed outside, in really cold environments or used for water leaks need to limit the amount of water that gets into the devices. 3.) Simple user
experience: it was a challenge to design a simple user setup. One of the areas of opportunity was the pairing process. With most smart devices, you have to go through a pairing process. We identified that as a pain point for users so we developed our own protocol for pairing devices. Our goal is ease-of use. Every device is the same. It detects all five “senses” and device tasks are 100% configurable in the Notion smartphone app.
How did Silicon Labs become part of Notion?
First and foremost, the account management team at Silicon Labs is easy to work with. We were able to get the answers we needed to make important decisions and the team availed themselves to all-levels of the Notion organization, from executives to hardware engineers. Second, the Gecko platform allows us to configure specific protocols and free our team to focus on other things. Previously, the Notion team developed everything – from OTA update mechanisms to the security protocols. It was very labor intensive. Silicon Labs helped alleviate much of this burden. Third, the Silicon Labs team spent the time building rapport and working with us on a pricing model that worked for our start-up.
What’s been the market’s response to Notion?
Overwhelmingly positive. It’s the best multi-functional sensor on the market with its simple 15-minutes-or-less set up, increased range, and long battery life. Our channel strategy includes not only B2C, but also B2B; we are partnered with several of the top insurance companies in the U.S. Similar to car sensors that help lower your insurance premiums for good driving, we’ve pursued a similar path for home ownership. Now a homeowner or renter can augment their monthly premium by installing Notion. Additionally, we’re the first IoT company to have
a partnership with HomeAdvisor. So, if you have a water leak, we not only detect it, but we can connect you with an available plumber in your area within 30 seconds.
What do you see is the vision for the future of Notion, and the IoT in general?
We believe the services extension of IoT is changing what it means to have a smart home. Being a homeowner is hard and our mission is to help you take care of your home. We have a 10-year goal of making Notion a requirement to obtain property insurance -- that’s how powerful we think our product and data is. We partnered with one of our insurance partners, Hippo, to be the first fully-integrated smart insurance product on the market. Every customer who buys Hippo insurance receives a Notion starter kit for free. Once the customer sets up their
Notion system, they get an exclusive discount on their premium. We’re driving insurance to make a change while adding thoughtful services to the Notion brand to help homeowners take care of and secure their home.
Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with Alex Rogers, Professor of Computer Science at Oxford University. One of his recent projects exploring technology and zoology resulted in the creation of a small, low-power acoustic device built to record the songs of a potentially extinct cicada. The project began a little more than two years ago and has since morphed into a start-up called Open Acoustic Devices spinning out of the university.
The Open Acoustic device, known as the AudioMoth, is already in the hands of many ecologists and conservation organizations that are using it to track and study hard-to-detect wildlife and/or potential threats to wildlife, such as gun shots by illegal poachers or chain saws in protected forests. Previously, if ecologists or wildlife enthusiasts needed a highly sensitive audio recorder for field research, they had to pay nearly $1,000 per audio recorder. Or they could opt for an open-source recorder built from a low-cost single-board computer, which required large battery packs -- sometimes even car batteries! The AudioMoth, on the other hand, is slightly larger than a smart phone (batteries included) and costs roughly $50.
Check out our conversation below about how a small university project scaled itself to commercialize a one-of-a-kind audio recorder for wildlife.
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how Open Acoustic Devices came about.
As a professor of computer science, my interest has been in deploying machine learning algorithms on devices constrained by computing power and battery power.
My interest in conservation technology stemmed from an event at the Zoology Dept. at Oxford, which was exploring new technology for biodiversity monitoring. The department was interested in using low-cost phones to change how people conduct environmental monitoring. With PhD student Davide Zilli, we set out to use smartphones to listen for a rare cicada insect in the U.K., which we still don’t know is extinct, hidden or just rare. The cicada sings at a very high frequency, at about 15 kilohertz, which most adults can’t hear, but smartphones can.
We didn’t find the cicada with the smartphones, but we started thinking about how we could design a small acoustic device to automatically detect the song of this insect. Two new PhD students, Andy Hill and Peter Prince, joined the project, and we ended up building a prototype device, and then made it available to others about a year ago.
We soon discovered a huge appetite for low-cost, open-source acoustic recorders. We are now working with ecologists who use our device to record bats, birds, insects and other wildlife. Until now, professional ecologists typically had been surveying wildlife with commercial equipment.
The cost advantage of AudioMoth completely changes the science people can do. It means ecologists can do research that would have been cost-prohibitive before. Previously, if an ecologist had a small budget, they could maybe only deploy three or four recorders. Now they can potentially deploy 100 recorders, meaning different types of wildlife surveys can be conducted.
Who is your buying audience?
It’s a big mix – it’s a split equally between university researchers (ecologists) and conservation organizations. We’ve done some large bat survey deployments with the Zoological Society of London and the Bat Conservation Trust. But then there’s a whole pool of individuals and enthusiasts recording birds and bats on their own.
Can you tell me about the performance of the device?
From the beginning, we were looking to create a minimal device we could run smart algorithms on to only record when hearing a sound of interest. In the first instance, this was the New Forest cicada.
We combined an inexpensive MEMS microphone, similar to what’s inside a smartphone, with an SD card and MCU to create a programmable and highly mobile device. Because of the small size, the microphones are extremely sensitive to high frequencies -- perfect for people interested in bats, where they are recording at 100 kilohertz.
We have a lot of deployments in remote jungles and forests with extremely limited Internet access, but we are still planning to add low-power wireless connectivity to new versions of the device for alerting, streaming and research purposes.
Did you have any design challenges?
The key challenge for a battery-powered device is power -- we knew we had to focus on low power from the beginning. Our users worry most about how much data they will end up recording. We used Silicon Labs’ Wonder Gecko microcontrollers because of their low power capabilities, which results in smaller batteries and longer life in the field.
The non-commercial, open-source recorder alternative is typically based on Raspberry Pi, which uses a much more capable processor running a Linux operating system, and as a result requires a much larger battery pack. In many wildlife applications, the devices have to be carried to the deployment sites in backpacks, making the size and weight of the batteries critical.
Can you give me some idea of the power gains experienced by using the Gecko MCU?
To give an example, right now we have a deployment in Belize that involves listening for gunshots to detect illegal hunting in tropical forests. With a small battery pack (a 6V lantern battery), we can deploy a sensor that lasts for 12 months and listens continuously for 12 hours a day, only making recordings if it thinks it detected a gun shot. With the Gecko MCU, we can do nearly all the listening while the processor sleeps, then it can wake up to run the detection algorithms across a 4-second sound buffer.
How did the Gecko get on your radar?
We originally used an NXP processor and the Arm Mbed development platform in our prototype. We really liked the development platform, but the processor used too much power. Silicon Labs ended up being a better option because of the integrated tool chain, allowing us to directly measure and optimize energy consumption. We can also distribute the code, knowing that the development tools are free and are available on all operating systems, which is a critical benefit.
As a university project, how did you manufacture these devices?
To keep costs low, we started exploring alternative manufacturing routes. With Alasdair Davies of the Arribada Initiative (an organization promoting open, affordable conservation technology), we started running group purchasing campaigns through GroupGets, a low-cost assembly company that facilitates group purchasing. After testing the market with some relatively small orders, GroupGets enabled us to run off a batch of 1,500 devices from a PCB assembler, providing real economy of scale.
This model allows designers the ability to offer various types of devices, yet manufacture at a low risk. We’ve manufactured close to 4,000 devices so far and have a live campaign running at the moment that will likely result in another 1,500 orders. As a small university project, there is no way we would have been able to do without this model.
We also used CircuitHub, which enabled us to post our hardware design and bill of materials on its website. The concept essentially hacks low volume manufacturing. Suddenly, people can share and distribute hardware in the same way people have been able to share and distribute software.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Computation on devices is always more energy efficient than storing or transmitting data, meaning devices will continue to become smarter and handle more processing on their own. Many of the deep learning algorithms that researchers are exploring at the moment are still too complex to run on very low-power small devices, but there’s already a huge amount of interest in figuring out how to push these algorithms down to small, low-power devices.