As most in our industry are no doubt well aware, Embedded World 2021 is happening this week. Although this year’s event is virtual instead of in-person as it typically is in Nuremberg, Germany, embedded technology innovators from around the world will be logging-in to participate, and Silicon Labs is no exception.
In fact, Silicon Labs will be sharing our IoT expertise throughout Embedded World 2021, with presentations and papers focused on a variety of topics: the compelling advantages of Wi-SUN mesh technology for smart city utility applications, the most pressing IoT security issues the embedded industry faces today, and how to prevent bad actors from penetrating embedded hardware and software applications.
We’ll also be front and center of an expert panel discussion exploring the latest developments in wireless connectivity solutions for IoT, ranging from interoperability to security and reliability, and provide an outlook towards the future.
Here’s the roster of the Silicon Labs experts presenting this week, what they’ll be presenting, and when. We hope you’ll join us for all of them!
We hope you’ll join our embedded IoT experts online at Embedded World 2021. For more information on Silicon Labs’ state-of-the-art security solutions, visit silabs.com/security. For more information regarding the advantages of Wi-SUN for smart city mesh networking applications, we encourage you to read our recent guest blog Q&A with Wi-SUN president and CEO Phil Beecher.
Yes, the title of this post is correct. In 2017, ARC Advisory Group estimated the global downtime in manufacturing industry is in the range of one trillion dollars annually. That is a lot of money, and to put it into a perspective, the global GDP in 2019 according to World Bank was 87.8 trillion dollars. It is not surprising that reducing the downtime is one of the most attractive outcomes industrial IoT can provide.
Why does downtime cost so much and how to reduce it?
What options exist in reducing downtime? Predictive maintenance has proven a cost-efficient application to address downtime challenges and provide ROI to justify projects. IoT Analytics forecasts that the predictive maintenance market is growing at 39% CAGR to $23.5 billion dollars in 2024. What makes predictive maintenance so attractive is that it addresses two key issues at the same time. If the machinery or components like motors, pumps and bearings are run until they fail, there can be more costly damages done to the equipment due to the failure. In addition, there is the time spent by the staff trying to get replacement parts on site and then working overtime to fix the issue. All of this adds to the final cost of an unplanned downtime event and contributes to lost production. On the other hand, if the equipment is over-serviced by changing wearing parts too often or too early, the downtime also increases because of the too-frequent scheduled service breaks. In predictive maintenance, the algorithms use sensor data collected from the machinery and components to warn the operator of a future failure condition ahead of time, allowing ample time to schedule and plan for the maintenance before the failure occurs.
Key care-abouts in predictive maintenance
Predictive maintenance solutions commonly rely on detecting anomalies in vibration fingerprints of motors, pumps, bearings, and other devices that run the industrial and commercial processes. Because cabling costs for adding vibration sensors are immensely high, these sensors are typically leveraging wireless communications and powered from a battery. We have some unique advantages for predictive maintenance solution developers. Our products include industry-leading low-power consumption wireless SoCs and modules. Using the built-in low-power modes, the sensors can benefit from fast wakeup times and balancing time between sleep and active modes. This power optimization translates into longer battery life, which means lower total cost of ownership (TCO) for the end customer because the sensors require less maintenance during their lifetime.
Choosing the best-fit wireless technology for your application
The environments in which predictive maintenance solutions are deployed vary to a large degree. This is why the solution developer should partner with a communications expert like we that can support a wide range of wireless technologies in multiple frequency bands. For longer-range needs, technologies such as Wi-SUN, Mioty, or other sub-GHz options are more suitable. Local networks within a factory or a plant could benefit from Bluetooth and mesh technologies, or leverage existing dual-band Wi-Fi infrastructure to connect the sensors.
Embedded AI/ML changing the landscape for predictive maintenance
Artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI//ML) has extended its reach from being a cloud-level application requiring massive computing resources to something that can be efficiently executed at Cortex-M level microcontrollers. Silicon Labs' AI/ML partners have built tools that allow predictive maintenance algorithms to run on just a few kilobytes of RAM memory. The edge pre-processing means that the local radio can be turned off until there is an anomaly that needs to be reported to the back office system and the operator. This can further conserve the precious battery capacity and enhance the TCO.
How to get started?
If you want to take part in solving this trillion-dollar question, a good place to start is by exploring our Thunderboard Sense 2 Evaluation Kit. This kit integrates wireless communications with an array of sensors, including accelerometer and temperature, which are the most common in predictive maintenance applications. You can also browse our Design Network for partners, who can help you to design solutions that run on our wireless SoCs and modules. Finally, take a look at our recent case study on Sensemore, which chose our pre-certified Bluetooth modules for its predictive maintenance sensor. This decision allowed them to fast-forward their development efforts and get to the market quicker.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with Dave DeMona, Arrow Electronics’ engineering manager for lighting, about Arrow’s new smart horticulture platform: Arrow Growhouse. Concerns about global population growth, sustainability, and ecologically friendly farming are encouraging growers to adopt innovative technologies to improve farming practices.
Late last year, Arrow Electronics – one of the leading electronics distribution companies – introduced a new IoT platform with superior lighting controls. These controls help the commercial farming industry improve crop yield and gain better control of their indoor crops, decreasing water, space, and pesticide usage. The platform also equips growers with remote wireless control and monitoring of indoor farming operations and conditions. The demand for smart agriculture products such as this one has been growing rapidly. Dave explains below what prompted Arrow to build the scalable and smart horticulture system and how exactly it works.
Can you tell us about Growhouse?
The Arrow Growhouse platform is a flexible, scalable, smart agriculture solution for monitoring and controlling key aspects of a commercial growing environment. It combines environmental and plant-level monitoring and multichannel lighting control into a single, cloud-based user interface with both a web and mobile app. It's compatible with most of the horticulture luminaires currently in the market, and the underlying architecture allows for easy development of additional sensing and control modules based on a customer's individual needs.
What components are included in the platform?
The system can be bought either piecemeal or as a complete system, depending on what the user needs. The basic kit includes a gateway that communicates back to the cloud and a multichannel LED controller that connects to the horticulture luminaire itself, allowing the user to control the different color channels. The kit also includes a soil sensor to monitor the moisture level and the pH of the soil. Customers can add more sensors and controllers as needed.
The architecture of the system is customizable: if a farmer has unique needs and wants to monitor aspects of the system that the base package doesn't cover, it's easy for us to develop additional sensor modules to fit their needs.
What was the inspiration behind creating this smart horticulture solution?
Over the past few years, we've been involved with a number of different horticulture and horticulture-adjacent customers. We noticed that – although clients had great ideas on how to optimally grow plants – there was an underlying set of fundamental requirements. This client base is predominantly growers, not hardware and software experts, so we thought: What if we built a base platform that could be individualized and customized for their unique needs?
How long has the product been available?
The product was launched last year and was enabled by a combination of recent technology advancements:
The maturation of LED technology enables practical implementation of controllable LED luminaires for horticulture. Suddenly, farmers could control the spectrums that a plant sees throughout its growth, which can trigger specific characteristics.
In addition, advances and cost reductions in communication and sensing started to allow for better monitoring of what's happening at the plant level.
These combined factors sparked a revolution a few years ago and this reflects on the feedback surrounding Growhouse to date. Systems have historically been disparate and manual (such as lighting, environmental controls, and fertigation), but Growhouse integrates all of the monitoring and control capability into a single, intuitive user interface.
Why did you select Silicon Labs’ technology for your platform?
Like many IoT platforms, Growhouse involves a gateway, end devices, and communication to a cloud and a user interface. Communication between our end devices is via Zigbee, and communication for commissioning is via Bluetooth. We chose Silicon Labs Zigbee modules for the radio because it’s a high-performing, integrated dual technology that tackles our needs.
What are the primary market drivers of smart horticulture?
Growth in the market is due to a variety of needs: resource conservation, population growth, a desire for local production, reduced transport of produce and grown items, and the reduced use of pesticides and fertilizers. A lot of these needs tie back to the intent of creating an ecologically sustainable method of farming.
Smart agriculture also provides a highly controlled environment, so growers end up with not only faster-growing crop yields, but more consistent yields with less waste fallout. Adding control to different aspects of the growth environment allows the grower to ensure their crop is behaving the way they want it to, when they want it to.
There has been a boom in indoor horticulture in recent years. How is indoor farming better for the planet?
It really is all about the control of the plant environment. When you're growing outside, you're subject to the whims of the weather. With indoor horticulture, the grower has complete control over that environment, leading to significantly reduced water usage and needs for fertilizers and pesticides. Indoor agriculture also allows for farming in regions that may be unsuitable for certain outdoor crops. For example, in some areas in Africa where you really can’t grow certain crops in the ground, growing food within a warehouse or container allows people to cultivate locally.
How do you see IoT technology supporting sustainable agriculture in the future?
We look at the evolution of farming as the evolution of human history. Until recently, we haven't had a lot of insight and data into how to farm better. The direction I see IoT going in smart agriculture is in the implementation of AI: doing something with all the newly derived data now being gathered on a more and more granular level. I think we will see a continuation of automation from the time the seed is planted in the ground until it's ready to harvest.
Everything will be based on the sensors' data and the rules developed, enabling better quality and crop consistency, less fallout, and more locally grown crops. We'll start seeing smaller versions of these systems at a local level – whether that be for a small city or a college campus – all the way to the point where we may have these systems in our own homes, much like a micro-garden in your kitchen. Regardless of how green your thumbs are, you'll be able to create quality produce at home, and get rid of all the transportation needs and other external factors.
We are excited that Dr. Manish Kothari has joined Silicon Labs as Vice President of Silicon Labs India. In this role, Manish will grow our company's wireless engineering talent, build scalable infrastructure, and foster local partnerships in Hyderabad, Silicon Labs' newest and fastest-growing wireless development center.
Manish brings more than 20 years of technology management experience, most recently serving as head of wireless software product development at Qualcomm Hyderabad. He has built and managed teams of more than 1,000 wireless developers, holds more than 100 patents, graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and received his MS and Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Manish as he steps into this new and important role for the company.
MS: Could you share your high-level vision for our Hyderabad development center?
MK: The Hyderabad development center is Silicon Labs’ fastest-growing site, playing an important and strategic role in helping the company as a whole scale to meet the huge demand for Silicon Labs’ solutions.
My vision is to build a world-class development center here that embodies Silicon Labs’ culture and engineering best practices, with a highly motivated and talented team that has a passion for execution, innovation, collaboration, integrity, and fun. We will also remain very customer-focused and strive for continuous improvement. Another key goal is to become an industry-leading technology center of excellence for Wi-Fi, including Wi-Fi 6. Silicon Labs’ 2020 acquisition of Redpine Signals’ Wi-Fi and Bluetooth businesses included a very strong IP portfolio that expanded and accelerated the company’s ability to be a true leader in low power, secure Wi-Fi solutions.
MS: What is your management style and philosophy?
MK: My management philosophy is grounded in humility (I know that I don’t know everything and there’s something to learn from everyone), reliability, accountability, integrity, a thirst for learning, and respect for everyone. The technology industry can be a very intense environment, so I seek to inspire, empower and motivate teams by setting the same standards for myself as I do for my teams and work with a sincere focus to help ensure successful outcomes. Work-life balance starts with all of us enjoying the work we do, and I am always mindful about making the office a fun place to be.
MS: From your point of view, what are the most exciting things happening in IoT?
MK: The IoT is already improving productivity and quality of life in a variety of consumer and commercial settings. In my humble opinion, the most exciting things in IoT are still to come and perhaps not yet even imagined. Here’s an example of one such possibility: the creation of powerful, decentralized AIoT (artificial intelligence IoT) networks with ubiquitous wireless end nodes. In this scenario reliability, privacy, and security improvements promise to be huge, much like the key underpinnings of Satoshi-San’s bitcoin, because there won’t be a single point of failure anymore. This scenario also shifts power away from centralized ecosystem/cloud and opens new possibilities and the benefits that come with a decentralized system.
Silicon Labs is uniquely positioned to disrupt the industry as these “not so simple” wireless end nodes leverage AI and machine learning to become more intelligent (and powerful) over time. And history is on our side. After all, technology disruptions typically occur from the bottom up, as detailed in the famous book Innovator’s Dilemma. We are only limited by our imaginations, as the saying goes, and I consider myself fortunate to be part of this incredible journey of disruption where Silicon Labs is right at the forefront.
MS: What do you like to do outside of work?
MK: I love spending time with my family, especially my two boys, and participating in their various activities like losing badly in NBA 2K/FIFA on PlayStation. I have always been an “outdoor” person and love to travel. Both my wife and son are certified yoga instructors, so I am a (sometimes forced) fitness freak. Sports is a big deal in our family, and almost every major sport is a topic of discussion during dinner time. I love traditional dance, called “Bhangra,” and I used to teach it to school kids when my boys were younger. For me, dancing is my go-to stress buster!
MS: Thank you, Manish, and best of luck to you!
Silicon Labs’ Hyderabad site headcount has grown approximately 30% since the Redpine Signals acquisition. The company continues to hire hardware and software engineers in Hyderabad, and candidates may review and apply for open positions here.
From the types of power switches you use to the layout of your printed circuit board (PCB), numerous design decisions will affect the robustness of your high-power inverter designs. In this Power Hour webinar, Staff Product Manager, John Wilson, and Sr. Staff Applications Engineer, Long Nguyen, describe the key issues and solutions to consider when designing high-power inverter systems. They introduce the Si828x isolated gate drivers and explain how they can benefit your high-power designs. The following highlights are some key takeaways from the presentation.
One of the first decisions to make when designing your high-power inverters is the type of power switch you will use. Power switches have unique capabilities and requirements, such as voltage limits, temperature ranges, and operating frequencies, that will drive numerous design decisions for your high-power inverters, including which type of gate driver to use. The four main types of power switches are:
Working voltages are another essential factor to consider. Designers must evaluate the maximum voltages the system will be exposed to under normal conditions and ensure that the gate drivers and power switches can meet these power requirements. For the gate driver, the working voltage rating will exceed maximum expected peak voltages. For switches, a rule of thumb is that the maximum expected voltages should be less than 80% of the device family’s voltage rating.
Gate drivers and power switches have critical protection needs that must be addressed in the design. For example, undervoltage issues generate heat and efficiency loss. Overvoltage can cause switch damage. Fortunately, these issues can be mitigated with solutions such as desaturation detection, using a Miller clamp to prevent switch parasitic turn-on, and careful PCB layout techniques.
There are also application dependencies to consider. For example, a stable, high-power application, such as a steady-running industrial motor inverter, may not need much protection. In contrast, a dynamic application, such as an EV traction inverter, may require extensive system protection.
PCB board layout is also an important consideration when designing a power electronic circuit because it determines the power circuit's performance, efficiency, and reliability. A well-planned PCB layout minimizes parasitic inductance and capacitance and improves reliability and efficiency.
A final consideration is determining how to supply power to the secondary side of a half-bridge device. This task can be accomplished discreetly or in an integrated fashion.
As you design your high-power inverters, look for power switch technologies and gate drivers appropriate to the working voltages required by your system application. Consider the critical protection needs and choose gate drivers that can provide solutions accordingly.
Silicon Labs offers a full spectrum of solutions with our Si828x isolated gate drivers. An integrated dc-dc converter within these devices simplifies layout and provides each driver with its own power supply, which translates to reduced noise and inductances and a more compact and smaller PCB.
The Si8285 has all the apps and features of the Si828x family (desaturation detection, Miller clamp, etc.), as well as an industry-leading noise immunity of 125 kV/us. We also have a robust reference circuit that enables adjusting various parameters based on the type of power switch you are using.
In addition to the Si828x series, we offer an extensive isolated gate driver product family that is suitable for inverters. Altogether, these devices offer a broad range of benefits, from power robustness to extensive flexibility.
One of our guiding values is to hire, foster and empower great talent. Silicon Labs’ internship program cultivates this philosophy through highly sought-after positions in software, design, operational engineering, technical marketing and sales, as well as corporate marketing and finance. During their time with us, interns help us solve real-world problems and work on meaningful projects essential to Silicon Labs. They also get to experience a corporate culture that celebrates diversity in thinking, reasonable risk-taking, and challenging the status quo. Our interns get to work alongside some of the brightest minds in the IoT and semiconductor space who are also invested in helping develop our interns into our industry’s future leaders.
Sometimes they even get to sit down for coffee and ask for career advice from executives like Chief Strategy Officer, Daniel Cooley.
Having begun his career as an intern at Silicon Labs in 2002 Daniel recalls being eager to put the engineering fundamentals he was learning in school into real-world practice. Over the years, Daniel has curated a list of valuable resources for engineering students that spans the history of the semiconductor industry. He shares a bit about how it came about:
“The semiconductor industry is so fascinating because it is the culmination of almost all our modern scientific knowledge: physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, material science, communication theory, computer science, machine learning, and the list goes on. It is the most global and interconnected supply chain on the planet, shipping hundreds of billions of chips per year into every corner of the global economy. I like to tell people that in all possible futures, semiconductors are even more important than they are today.
I have the utmost respect for the innovators and business leaders that came before us and built the semiconductor industry. I also believe that you must study, understand, and appreciate how the industry came to be in order to have the most impactful and rewarding career. Trying to navigate your career without this historical understanding is like trying to sail across the ocean with no map or knowledge of the seasonal winds and currents…not something I would attempt.
I made it a point to search for and consume as much content about the history of our industry as possible. No source is perfect, but considered as a group, you can quickly make sense of this complicated but beautiful industry. This is a partial reading list to get you started. If you finish, there are literally hundreds of additional sources if you’re willing to spend some time looking for them…”
The first time I saw a wireless electronic shelf label, it was virtually indistinguishable from the old-fashioned paper labels I was accustomed to. I only realized it was electronic when the price changed before my eyes. These electronic paper displays (EPDs) are changing the retail game. What once took hours or even days, with a person walking around manually updating shelf labels and industrial signage, can now be done in seconds. The EPDs have reflective properties that only require ambient light to be visible, meaning they don’t have the glare of typical electronic displays. This makes the displays more like the pages of an e-reader that mimics what it’s like to read a paper book. They are also bistable, which means they can retain an image even when no power is connected.
The pixels of an EPD are composed of millions of tiny microcapsules, each about the diameter of a human hair. E Ink, a pioneer in electronic signage, developed its 3-pigment ink system specifically for electronic shelf labels. It works by applying a charge to the pigments and to a top and bottom electrode to facilitate movement. Since EPDs have the ability to draw zero current, the power consumption of the microcontroller unit (MCU) and the rest of the application is very low, and therefore, ideally suited for these applications.
Our EFR32 MCU is a great fit for EPD applications due to its energy efficiency and storage capacity. To help developers get started, we’ve put together this Application Note showing how to drive an EPD with the EFR32xG22-based Wireless Starter Kit. You can also find more info on our GitHub page. The flexible energy modes of the EFR32 allows the MCU to draw as little current as possible and in many cases the MCU’s Energy Mode 4 can be used, resulting in power consumption as low as 170 nA. Memory is another important feature for saving frame buffers and images and the EFR32 has large memory options, both for Flash and SRAM. This application note also makes use of E Ink’s EPD extension board, which is available along with a HULK Driving Board here.
Even though the EPDs draw no current while showing a static image, they require a significant amount of current while updating the display, which is the only time they consume any power. An update can take between 12-18 seconds at room temperature, and aside from the time requirements, the MCU must complete the power-up/power-down sequences and transmit frames to the panel. For this reason, EPDs are not suited to applications that require a high update frequency.
The app note discusses ways to optimize power consumption during a display update, including putting the MCU into its optimal energy mode. Learn more about how electronic shelf labels contribute to retail infrastructure here, and if you set out to develop an EDP, we’d love to hear how your project is going.
We recently had the chance to speak with Morten Møgelmose, Co-Founder and CEO of Zliide, a Danish company merging the digital and physical realms of the fashion retail world. Zliide’s Bluetooth security tags bridge the gap between virtual and in-store retail experiences, providing a seamless and heightened customer experience. Zliide tags connect with shoppers’ smart phones, allowing them to conveniently self-checkout at any moment and access product information, photos, and videos to enhance their shopping experience. The tags also provide valuable data for retailers, giving key insights into specific stores, items, and customer preferences. Below Morten shares background on the company’s overall mission and insights behind how the company’s innovative tag technology works.
Can you tell us a little bit about Zliide?
Zliide is a Danish company founded in 2016 with a vision to always take the consumer’s point of view first. Fashion retail has always been really good at providing consumers with a great “wow” experience when they come into the stores, but a lot of the stores have forgotten the digital evolution of customers. Our solution enables fashion retailers to provide an omnichannel experience, combining offline experience with online experience. This is done through what we call the Zliide tag, which goes onto every piece of merchandise in the store. The tag operates like a standard security tag, but allows users to scan the tag with the Zliide app and gain access to a digital version of the item in the app. This can show videos and images of the item on a model or in motion, allowing shoppers to really envision themselves in the merchandise. The consumer can then pay for the item on their phone, using a mobile payment application. Once the item is paid for, the security tag unlocks, and the customer is able to leave the store with their purchase. Right now, our technology is only available in Denmark, but we are looking to expand to other Nordic countries and perhaps the U.K. in the next couple of years.
Why was the Zliide tag created?
The whole company started based on an experience I had in a Nike store in London. When I arrived in London, I used Airbnb and Uber, and everything was with one click. Then I went into a store and actually had to wait for someone to help me get rid of my money and make a purchase. I was really frustrated because over the last few years I had become accommodated to using numerous cool technologies with easy user experience and convenience across all different channels. This experience led me to start a company with a vision to always take the consumer’s point of view first.
How is your Zliide tag different from other commonly seen security tags in fashion stores?
The basic purpose of a conventional tag is securing a piece of clothing. The conventional security tags business is great and meets a basic and much-needed functionality. We definitely believe tags have a place in the market indefinitely, but we also believe that if you already mount a piece of hardware onto every single item in a store, there is so much potential to build on top of the tag for data collection and a better consumer experience.
With our product, we enable customers to interact with every item in the store and access pictures and videos of everything they want, anywhere they want. It’s all about freedom and convenience for the stores and the consumers, along with the possibilities of building a data collection for retailers. We allow communication with the end user’s mobile device by introducing Bluetooth to the tag. We've done this in the Zliide tag version we are introducing to the market now with Silicon Labs' BGM220. Also, in recent years, we’ve seen a rise in RFID tags that allow resellers to do a limited inventory count with RFID scanners. With our solution, retailers have the added benefit of doing an immediate daily inventory count.
Why did you decide to use Silicon Labs' solutions for the product?
We were introduced to Silicon Labs through Arrow and have been extremely impressed with the company's representatives, who introduced us to the BGM220 and its features.
All of the functionality we wanted was met in terms of security, battery lifetime and the possibility of over-the-air (OTA) updates, as it would be a big risk to not be able to easily update the software. On top of that, by using the module we were really able to minimize the size and the number of components on the PCB. Another important factor for us was to reduce cost of the device due to mass production – one fashion store can easily have 10,000 Zliide tags.
I would say one of the things that really made a difference for us was the superior level of support we have received from Silicon Labs. For us, it's really about the support and the commitment we've received to help a young company like ours to really thrive in a competitive world. Getting access to those valuable and knowledgeable resources to build a better product is really what made the whole difference for us.
Where do you see fashion retail IoT going in the next 5-8 years, and how has COVID-19 affected the market?
From a technology perspective, we see a lot of technology evolving in the retail sector at the moment. Recently we've seen a lot of investments going into the back end of retail companies to optimize the supply chain. I believe if you have a big footprint of stores, you need to take those stores and elevate them to the next level with consumer-facing technology. I think we will see technology in the fashion retail industry still being a little bit behind some of the other retail outlets such as supermarkets, convenience stores, etc. The fashion industry has high-value items that they want to protect, whereas in convenience stores and supermarkets, there's basically no security there; you can just use a barcode scanner to speed up the customer experience. Our technology will be the fastest solution to allow self-checkout for more high-value items.
COVID-19 had a major impact on more than just revenue streams in these fashion retail companies, and collectively the industry has realized how vulnerable it is. When it comes to shutting down all your stores, you’re losing 80-90% of the revenue from one day to another. I think it made retailers realize two things: For one, they need to do something different now. And two: they need to realize that digitalization is the only way to go. If COVID-19 restrictions go into effect again, retailers would still have access to users on the Zliide online platform with the ability to purchase something from their store. Even though stores would be physically closed, retailers could still ship out from the stores through this massive footprint.
In five years, we'll see a lot changing in the industry, and the ones who don't keep up with technological advancements will be the losing companies, no doubt about it.
Find out more about how our BGM22 Series here.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with two authors using new and unconventional animal tracking research: biologist Simon Ripperger of the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at Ohio State University and engineer Niklas Duda of the Institute for Electronics Engineering, Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg (FAU) in Germany. The talented duo’s animal tracking research went viral in October when one of their new studies confirmed that vampire bats in the wild socially distance themselves when sick.
The social distancing study was one of several consecutive case studies published since 2019, detailing the first-of-its-kind wireless biologging network they designed to track and study wild bats. The new biologging technology allows for simultaneous direct proximity sensing, high-resolution tracking, and long-range remote data download – all of which enabled their team to collect never-before-available data and observations on bats in the wild. The wireless sensor network has not only resulted in riveting findings about the social nature of bats, it has also opened the door to a new realm of scientific knowledge concerning the spread of infectious diseases, wildlife resources, foraging strategies, and physiology. The two brilliant scientists explain how their research came about and how new technology is enabling scientists and animal conservation experts to break boundaries in animal biologging.
Tell us how you all started working together and give us some background on your bat studies.
Simon: I’ve been involved with this project since the end of 2013 and was inspired by my advisor, who is also a bat biologist. He used to go to Greece for field work all the time, but their method of tracking and biologging bats was a bit unbelievable – he was essentially running behind bats, chasing them with an antenna. We knew there had to be a better way to do this, and the university had a long history of cooperation between computer scientists, engineers, and biologists. They decided to create a big, collaborative project on wireless sensor networks using a fully automated tracking system for bats.
Bats are a great species to start with because they’re elusive –it’s hard to observe them, and they're nocturnal and tiny. If your project can succeed with bats, it can probably work with most species. This was the motivation for the research unit, which was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG – Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft).
Can you tell us more about the wireless sensor network and how it gathers information?
Simon: I would say it is the most sophisticated sensor network for biologging –the degree of automation and data quality is certainly unique because we’ve combined different functionalities. We have high-resolution tracking to allow us to track animals with tags at small scales, and we also do proximity sensing. The tags can be as light as one gram, including housing and battery. If you look at systems for GPS tracking, the remote download function costs several grams because it’s so expensive in terms of energy. This all adds considerable weight to the tags, so it’s amazing to have this 1-gram tag with the option to retrieve data remotely.
For me as a biologist, the most exciting function is the proximity tracking. The tags talk to each other and exchange information, so we can get social networks of an entire group of animals every few seconds—simply mind-blowing if you have been studying social networks in animals—and the data quantity is amazing.
Why did you choose Silicon Labs for your wireless network?
Niklas: We have used Silicon Labs EFR32 SoCs since 2017 in all of our studies. Our tags have proximity logging and localization functions that operate at two different frequency levels. Before using Silicon Labs, we had to use three separate ICs to accommodate these functions. However, the Silicon Labs Flex Gecko integrates transceivers for both frequencies and a microprocessor core in one component. The ability to scale from three components to one makes the PCB smaller and makes it easier to control the radios, resulting in overall improved performance. We also wanted the Silicon Labs Gecko solution for its ultra-low-power functions. When tagging animals, we need our solution to be as small, light, and low power as possible, and Silicon Labs solutions support this need.
Can you tell us more about what you have learned about bats from your studies with the technology?
Simon: The first study we conducted was on noctule bats: European bats that live in city parks. Every few days, the bats switch their roosting site; therefore, we wanted to find out how offspring know where the group’s ever-changing roosting sites are located. Up until now, this has been impossible to track. With our wireless network, we found that mothers actually guide their pups to the new roosting sites; they leave the roost together, fly together, and arrive at the new roost together. This first simple application of our proximity sensing discovered a whole new form of maternal care in bats.
We then moved on to studying vampire bats, the most social species of bats. They have social connections similar to human friendships as they recognize each other, prefer to associate with certain individuals from a group, groom each other, and even share food. This behavior has been studied mainly in captivity because it’s so hard to observe bats in the wild. We were able to use our proximity sensors to see whether these social behaviors are simply an artifact of captivity or whether they held up in the wild. We took bats in captivity that we knew had social relationships with one another and released them back to the wild after two years. We could track associations between all the bats in their natural habitat and show that these social relationships were maintained in the wild, even with new bats to interact with and in a totally different setting. It showed for the first time that these relationships are very stable and persist in the wild. There would be no way to observe these behaviors without this technology.
One of your studies was widely covered by international media this past fall. Can you tell us about what you found?
Simon: We used our wireless network to observe bats' social networks and how they are affected when a bat is sick. We gave half the group an immune-challenging substance—a substance that doesn’t actually make them sick but makes the immune system react. With our high-resolution data, we could observe what happens to the network when the bats get sick. We found that their social encounters decreased –what we call social distancing –and after this period of sickness, the level of interaction with the “sick” bats went back to normal. Essentially, we found they manage to distance themselves from the group when they feel sick.
What are your future plans for studies?
Niklas: We’re spinning out a company, Dulog, to sell this technology to use with other animals. The technology is in development with several pilot customers and should be commercially available later this year.
Simon: The applications have no end – from preventing the spread of infectious diseases to studying information flow among social animals on food resources and even mating behavior—the sky is the limit! Why do social animals behave the way they do? With our technology, you can now observe their natural behaviors without interfering, but you can also use it to see how animals react to experimental approaches in the wild.
Where do you see the IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
Niklas: As IoT develops, sensors are getting smaller, which really benefits the scientific community – we reap the benefits of IoT that the larger commercial markets drive.
Simon: For biology, leaps forward have always been inspired by technology. Animal tracking has been around for 50 or 60 years, but advancements in IoT have allowed these recent developments to create a true renaissance in biologging and animal tracking. You can use benefits from ultra-low-power computing in various aspects of biology studies, and we not only get better data, but we can get it for a much wider range of animal species.
For more information on our EFR32 technology, visit https://www.silabs.com/products/wireless/technology.
After being forced to adopt an online-only format due to the COVID-19 crisis, CES 2021 retained its spot as the world’s premier can’t-miss tech bonanza. Though frustratingly hands-off, the event still managed to dazzle with a diverse roster of speakers, tons of virtual sessions, and hundreds of new product announcements. One speaker in particular, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, stood out to us as a pretty apt representative for what we’ve seen from our customers in the ways they’re tackling not just the technological advancements, but the societal changes happening before our eyes. The world’s most recognizable big-box chain isn’t exactly where you’d expect to go for innovation, but Doug’s live Q&A focused on how the retail giant is updating its tech stack with an emphasis on connectivity and data management to provide better customer experiences. His remark that ‘every company is a tech company’ is a great statement going into 2021.
This was a theme this year’s speakers returned to throughout the event - the convergence of technology and social corporate responsibility – and here are some of the key insights from CES 2021 and where Silicon Labs will be making an impact.
Sustainability Through the Smart Application of Technology
Technology has always been part of farming and improving agriculture outcomes, specifically being able to grow food crops more efficiently and sustainably, and it requires an approach to technology adoption that goes beyond traditional equipment updates. John Deer hired its first chief technology officer, Jahmy Hindman, in 2020 and he’s adjusted the company’s aperture from heavy equipment to include a new Intelligent Solutions Group that will focus on hardware and devices, embedded software, connectivity, data platforms, and applications. Jahmy’s session, Feeding the World with Precision Tech, focused on the ways elevating data insights can make agriculture as predictable as possible. Global demand for food is expected to increase by 50 percent over the next 30 years, which will put enormous pressure on agricultural productivity. Bringing just a little more predictability into a notoriously unpredictable industry through data-driven, precision planting can result in smarter farming decisions that deliver larger crop yields. John Deere’s high-capacity X-Series Combine Harvester won a CES 2021 Best of Innovation Award in the Robotics category.
EVs were also heavily featured this year, including a sneak peek at GM’s Cadillac Celestiq and the further-out 2023 Cadillac Lyric electric SUV. And this was just a taste of what’s to come from automobile manufacturers in pursuit of sustainability. GM alone is planning 30 all-electric vehicles by the end of 2025 on the strength of a nearly $30 billion investment. Sono Motors also made a splash with its introduction of the Sion, a mass market solar electric vehicle (SEV). With roughly 250 solar cells integrated into the body of the Sion, the car can be 80 percent charged in a half-hour – and it can share its power to charge other EVs. Making this technology accessible is the last barrier to mainstream adoption and Sono seized its CES moment to make a compelling case for urgent sustainability from the automotive industry.
AI and Machine Learning will Drive IoT Innovation
We’ve recognized AI and machine learning in IoT edge devices as one of the keys to making IoT devices trainable, actionable, and capable of extracting information and learning from the environment. CES 2021 validated this observation with the sheer volume of contextually aware devices being introduced. At Silicon Labs we have a soft spot for developers and Unity MARS, which was recognized as a CES 2021 Innovation Award Honoree and is helping creators build AR experiences more easily. The accessibility of tools like this empowers people to create VR and AR applications who would never have been able to before, opening up the development of all kinds of new IoT products and use cases.
Moving Healthcare Away from the Doctor’s Office and into the Home
Even before CES was moved online by one of the most significant health crises in generations, health and well-being has been an even staple. But this year high-performance computing, coupled withAI, took on more significance. One of our IoT Heroes, Airthings, introduced a new function of its Wave Plus that can actually analyze rooms and determine virus risks. The sensor doesn’t actually detect the virus itself but uses other information to determine the risk of possible transmission. Variables including temperature, humidity, and the number of people present based on CO2 emissions helps score the likelihood of a virus circulating move around the room. A low score triggers a suggestion like increasing airflow or asking some guests to leave.
This aligns with our observation that COVID-19 has compelled the healthcare industry to shift care away from clinical settings and into the home. Once rarely used remote treatment options like telemedicine are going mainstream and more patients routinely use video conferencing on smartphones and tablets to minimize in-person visits to doctors’ offices, clinics, or hospitals by interacting directly with healthcare workers through their connected screens. Physicians are increasingly prescribing smart medical monitoring equipment like pulse oximeters, heart rate monitors, and blood glucose monitors to patients on a more frequent basis. Smart medical device manufacturers are racing to add new connectivity technology like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth into these devices to connect to them to the internet. Through these new connected smart medical devices, doctors can instantly assess their patients’ status and render treatment remotely, helping to ensure valuable hospital beds remain available for those who truly need inpatient care.
Like most of the industry, CES is an important part of Silicon Labs’ calendar. Learning that it would be remote this year was actually one of the true harbingers of just how serious the global pandemic was being treated. We missed being in Vegas and missed seeing our friends and colleagues, and most of all we missed being up close and personal with all of the ways these companies are bringing the power of connectivity to bear on today’s problems. But over the last four days we’ve been encouraged by the resilience of our industry and inspired by how past innovations in connectivity, networking, and access to development tools are making all of these things possible in pretty trying and unprecedented circumstances.
We’re looking forward to seeing you there in person next year!