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.
Over and over, customers tell us they want a wireless link to just work so they can move on and focus on the application they're designing. This week, we delivered on this challenge with the introduction of Wireless Xpress, which gives designers the freedom to go from out of box to prototype within a few hours – versus months – with no software development necessary.
Wireless Xpress provides a configuration-based development experience with everything developers need, including certified Bluetooth® 5 Low Energy (LE) and Wi-Fi® modules, integrated protocol stacks and easy-to-use tools supported by the Silicon Labs Gecko OS operating system.
The new solution simplifies wireless development and eliminates the daunting task of working in numerous and complicated wireless development interfaces. Today’s IoT development teams are often burdened with importing numerous stacks of software, dealing with hundreds of APIs and complex RF integration obstacles, along with writing hundreds of hours of code. Because of these complexities, wireless development is hard to come by, and IoT companies often need to outsource the development, an extremely costly and time-intensive process that slows down time to market. Wireless Xpress removes the need for wireless development since we’ve already done the work for you.
Then there’s cloud connectivity – an onerous challenge for design teams to build from the ground up. Wireless Xpress provides instant cloud connectivity and has built-in firmware updates, along with the ability to retrieve updates and push them out to devices in the field. This functionality removes the need for our customers to pay for subscription-based services to ensure these updates are managed.
Wireless Xpress addresses all of these challenges head-on without a big stack. We take on as much firmware responsibility as possible, with all configuration occurring in the Gecko API. Wireless Gecko is not codeable, but configurable, freeing designers from the headache of wireless design by getting it all in one box.
Putting Application First, Versus Network
Another challenge solved by the new solution, and especially beneficial for low-power applications, is MCU processing constraints. An MCU in a typical wireless design is handling all of the network processing demands versus application needs, creating a situation where customers are often paying more than they need for an MCU. Wireless Xpress offloads the embedded host processing from the MCU and handles processing demands inside the package, reducing the processing performance required and optimizing the chip-set. With Wireless Xpress, you can use a bare bone 8-bit MCU for applications that would have otherwise needed a 32-bit because of RAM, flash, etc. demands.
Support Down to the Silicon
With the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules, Silicon Labs is able to go all the way down to the silicon to find a problem. When you look at other pre-programmed modules on the market, what you find is module vendors are not SoC designers – the silicon in these products is from other companies. Therefore, in the support structure, problems tend to be punted to the underlying silicon vendor. This structure really goes against the ease of use experience. Wireless Xpress gives customers one point of contact for wireless design, making it much easier for support and troubleshooting. It’s our silicon – we control every part of the flow, giving us the advantage to optimize design better than anyone on the market.
Our Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules are pre-programmed, pre-qualified and are pin for pin compatible with our portfolio of products. And they all run through the Gecko Xpress API, which we have already tested to ensure its reliability and flexibility. We’re taking care of the wireless interface on behalf of the customer and giving them back the 3-6 months it would take to build all of the connectivity from scratch.
So many of our customers seeking wireless connectivity are long-standing, established companies in markets that don’t have the in-house resources nor budget to invest in wireless connectivity talent – these companies’ main agenda is to make exceptional products for their markets. Wireless Xpress gives these companies the opportunity to obtain the wireless expertise they need in one package – giving time back to the developers to worry about their own customer needs – instead of complex wireless scenarios that demand too much time and money.
Wireless Xpress is the latest culmination of our strong customer relationships – we listen and design accordingly. Stay tuned as Silicon Labs continues to deliver the IoT solutions designers want to get innovative and high-performing products to the market as fast as possible.
Learn more at silabs.com silabs.com/products/wireless/xpress.
Recently, we had the chance to talk to Jim Stratigos, founder and CTO of Cognosos, an IoT start-up that has solved a big problem for automotive car dealers and auction operators. Fleet lots such as these – along with vehicle processing centers - can span hundreds of acres, across multiple locations, and can hold anywhere from 1,000-25,000 cars on-site at any given moment, creating significant challenges in locating and tracking these valuable assets. Cars are moved regularly for reconditioning, repairs, test drives, or to get ready for auctioning. Up until now, lot operators used expensive and often unreliable asset tracking technology such as RFID or Wi-Fi, or spent hours trying to manually locate cars throughout the day. Cognosos has completely changed the experience by creating an IoT wireless inventory tracking solution, allowing users to do quick searches online or on smartphones and see in real time the location and movement history of any car on the lot.
Jim explains below how the idea came about, what his team has learned since launching 18 months ago, and shares new solutions the company plans to tackle in the near future.
How did Cognosos get started?
In 2012, in the days before IoT, my two co-founders and I were looking at wireless sensor networks. We saw a lot of academic research in this area, yet few commercial deployments. We had some ideas to make the transition from the lab to the real-world happen. One of the research areas of interest to us was software defined radio (SDR), which has been used in radio astronomy for decades. We realized we could apply the same technology to real-world problems, such as extending the range and battery life of wireless networks. With this idea in mind, we reached out to Georgia Tech (Jim is an alumni and has mentored university start-ups). We started working with the Smart Antenna Research Lab within the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. We helped the group raise some grant funding to research how to use SDR and cloud-based signal processing to make wireless networks go further and have longer battery life.
Tell me a little bit about SDR – how does this solve range issues?
The nice thing about SDR is that it allows the physical layer of a wireless communications channel to be totally determined by software; therefore, it provides engineers with a clean slate without being constrained by silicon. That’s why this approach was attractive, we were able to pick frequencies, for example, with superior outdoor propagation, we could design our own modulation and coding formats, etc. with the intent to optimize all aspects of the performance. Basically, it gives you a platform to write your way into a physical wireless layer without having to develop custom chips. At the same time, an SDR-based wireless network can be very robust to interference and achieve an order of magnitude higher channel utilization than common wireless technologies.
Did you have a business solution in mind for the technology? Was there a specific problem you saw in a particular market, or did the application come later?
It came later. We were aware of a general class of problems facing agriculture, energy management, waste management, and water management, which all seemed to be a fit for low-cost wireless sensor networks. But it wasn’t clear five years ago which one would be commercially viable. We had the good fortune of having some really smart people, yet not much money, but we were able to rapidly prototype potential applications and show them to potential investors and customers. We were told over and over again that it looked interesting, but it was not really important. So we eventually pivoted and discovered there was a real need in the automotive industry to use wireless sensor networks to actually find cars. As you know, it’s normal for early stage companies to pivot, and we certainly did. We moved away from a broad “we can do anything wireless business model,” and went after a specific problem in a specific industry.
Why did you select the automotive industry?
It was a need articulated by our first customer, Manheim Auctions, a division of Cox Automotive. They came to us with the problem of losing cars. We assumed people were stealing them, but they explained it was the sheer amount of cars in one place combined with the fact that they had to be moved regularly for repairs, auction lane placement, etc. Most of the larger companies like Manheim have been trying all kinds of technologies to solve this problem, such as bar codes, RFIDs and even Wi-FI tracking and cellular systems, yet none of them were cost-effective or could scale. Here was a problem we didn’t even know existed.
What type of business impact feedback are you hearing from customers?
One customer told us recently that the typical 3-4 hours it took to locate a set of cars was reduced to 30 minutes. We have a lot of great data saying its reducing costs and improving the customers’ experience. We are also branching out into other markets where knowing the location of high valued assets is critical to driving customer satisfaction and reducing costs.
When you were developing the platform, were there any unforeseen design challenges?
One of the things that stood out to me is our use of GPS to find the location of the car. Everyone knows GPS receivers demand a lot of power, and we are dealing with battery powered devices, so you don’t want to leave the receiver on any longer than you have to. We naively thought early on that all we had to do was turn the receiver on, get the location, and you’re done. It’s actually much, much more complicated than that. Because of this issue, we ended up writing sophisticated algorithms to take the GPS data from the receiver and determine when it was accurate enough to turn off the receiver.
Tell me about the device itself. How simple is it for the operator to get up and running, and what’s the day-to-day interaction with the equipment?
We put a lot of effort into making it as simple as possible because our customers are not engineers. The user simply scans or types in the VIN number of the car, SKU/unit number, or description into a smart phone, and the car will show up on a map with instructions on how to get to it. Our RadioTrax device is placed on the visor of every car on the lot. It sends a sub-GHz radio message using our patented wireless technology that includes the GPS location of the car any time the car moves by using an accelerometer to detect motion. The devices are also upgradeable over-the-air – we have a unique OTA firmware update technology that simplifies the challenge of updating the firmware. We can do thousands of devices at once.
From an installation standpoint its very simple – our gateways are as easy to install as a router and connect to a simple roof-mounted antenna . We either use our own staff or contract third-party installation groups – some of our customers have even done the installation themselves.
We have both web and mobile applications, which is paramount because the interface is all the customer is going to see.
What’s your experience with Silicon Labs’ Flex Gecko?
In the early days, all of our prototypes were conventional wireless devices with a separate MCU, separate transceiver, drivers, etc. Then we became aware of the Silicon Labs Leopard Gecko, which has a transceiver and an MCU in the same package. When you’re in this business, anything you can do to reduce the number of components and the cost of device, you jump on. Certainly following the introduction of the Flex Gecko product line was an opportunity for us to further reduce the size, cost and complexity of our devices.
Silicon Labs’ level of support has been excellent. It’s important when you’re a small shop like us to work with a vendor like Silicon Labs who is willing to give you the support that you need - answer questions, jump in when there is a problem identified, get the samples you need quickly - that’s critical.
What are some other applications you are interested in pursuing?
When it comes to tracking assets outdoors, there are a number of other sub-verticals similar to automotive. For example, imagine any large outdoor area on hundreds or thousands of acres maintaining valuable things with wheels on them, such as construction sites, airports, ports, etc. We also see plenty of opportunities for our technology to be deployed indoors, such as buildings, retails, sports arenas and healthcare facilities.
What do you think IoT holds for companies managing large amounts of assets? Do you think IoT could manage large scale equipment as a subscription service?
It’s definitely coming. One of the trends we see emerging is the IoT industry encroaching on what was traditionally the RFID market. For example, RFID technologies scan equipment into a job site, but it can’t tell the operator where the tool is actually located on the site. The IoT curve is heading in the right direction, thanks to Moore’s Law and efforts from companies like Silicon Labs who integrate more and more functions onto a single silicon die.
This week, we’ve introduced a Wireless Gecko software solution created to simplify industrial and commercial IoT applications using sub-GHz wireless connections by adding Bluetooth connectivity. The new hardware and software solution enables simultaneous sub-GHz and 2.4 GHz Bluetooth low energy connectivity for commercial and industrial IoT applications, such as smart metering, home and building automation, and commercial lighting.
This is important for the industrial and commercial sectors for several reasons – for one, it’ll make it much easier for people working in these environments to set-up, control, and monitor sub-GHz IoT devices using Bluetooth low energy mobile apps.
Sub-GHz wireless protocols are used extensively in industrial and commercial settings because many of them require a combination of energy efficiency, long battery life, and extended range for remote sensor nodes. Proprietary sub-GHz protocols allow developers to optimize their wireless solution to their specific needs instead of conforming to a standard that might put additional constraints on network implementation. With our new software solution, sub-GHz protocols can still be utilized for their benefits, but users can also easily manage the system using Bluetooth mobile apps on a variety of devices, such as tablets or smart phones.
Sub-GHz environments are typically low-data-rate systems, such as simple point-to-point connections to large mesh networks and low-power wide area networks (LPWAN). By adding Bluetooth with low energy connectivity to wireless networks in the sub-GHz band, developers can deliver new capabilities such as faster over-the-air (OTA) updates and deploy scalable, location-based service infrastructure with Bluetooth beacons.
Single Chip Reduces Cost by 40 Percent
IoT developers stand to gain tremendous development benefits by avoiding the complexity of two-chip wireless architectures. By using a single chip with both sub-GHz and BLE connectivity, developers can simplify hardware and software development, which can speed time-to-market and reduce bill-of-materials (BOM) cost and size by up to 40 percent.
Accenture estimates industrial IoT could add $14.2 trillion to the global economy by 2030, making the deployment potential of this solution especially massive. Any new technology developments such as this one that helps developers control and monitor industrial and commercial devices and data more easily leads to efficiency and economic gains for both businesses and the users.
Mobile control applications are often a crucial piece of industrial and commercial automation, giving system operators a quick and easy way to control equipment. For instance, commercial lighting depends heavily on mobile devices, which control lighting on/off schedules, energy efficient modes and rules, and dimming based on occupancy using ambient light sensors. Often times, the mobile app may be the only control interface installers, designers and site managers have for project commissioning and configuration.
Bluetooth connectivity allows the device apps and interface to be simple, which can make a difference in user adoption, as many lighting and commercial controls can be complex and difficult to manage.
Our new solution will clearly yield impressive benefits for both developers and the users of the industrial applications. Fortunately, the new multiprotocol software is now available using Silicon Labs’ EFR32MG and EFR32BG Wireless Gecko SoCs. Check out more details here if you’re working on a product that could benefit from the solution.
For the upcoming Embedded World tradeshow in Nuremberg, Germany, the Silicon Labs MCU team is showing off some unique ways to ease the challenges of developing cloud-connected applications. The demo consists of the EFM32 Giant Gecko 11 MCU, which is running Micrium OS and connects to Amazon Web Services via the new XBee3 cellular module from Digi International.
This particular demo is quite simple – a closed-loop system with an MCU monitoring a temp sensor and controlling a fan. However, the real-world use cases that these building blocks and tools can scale to serve are much more profound.
For example, many smart city applications including bridge sensors, parking meters, waste management sensors, and others often consist of portable sensor devices that require seamless long-range connectivity to the cloud. They may be battery powered with user demands of 10+ year battery life. They may have lots of sensor inputs and extra features like button inputs and local displays. Finally, they might need to be designed quickly, but with a long field-upgradeable lifetime in mind. These are the types of applications that this demo speaks to, with Micrium OS, Giant Gecko 11, and Digi’s XBee3.
Micrium OS is running on the MCU and helps modularize the application functions. It’s helping the MCU maintain communication with the cellular module, monitor the temp sensor, drive the TFT display, and update control settings when local push buttons are pressed. By using Micrium, these various pieces can easily be divided and coded in parallel without having to worry about any messy integration at the end. In fact, this is exactly what the Embedded World demo team did – three different development teams in three different cities built the demo, and Micrium was the underlying glue that made it seamlessly come together.
Another challenge being addressed here is the connectivity piece. As devices are now adding wireless connectivity, there are lots of hurdles to clear: RF design in some cases, FCC certifications, understanding wireless networking, security, and more. Not only does Silicon Labs offer homegrown, low power SoCs and modules, but now Digi helps add simple cellular connectivity. The Digi XBee3 is a plug-and-play NB-IoT module that has built-in security and is pin-compatible with 3G and LTE-M modules. It’s programmable via MicroPython and comes pre-certified so developers can focus more on the application itself.
This brings us to the developer’s main focus, the application. The Giant Gecko 11 is a new 32-bit energy friendly microcontroller from Silicon Labs, and our the most capable yet. It helps simplify complex, cloud-connected applications with its large on-chip memory (2MB/512kB), lots of flexible sensor interfaces, SW and pin compatibility with other EFM32 MCUs, and unique low power capability to help prolong battery life. For example, not only does Giant Gecko 11 allow for autonomous analog and sensing in “Stop Mode” (1.6 uA), but it also has Octal SPI interface for external data logging, which could be used to reduce cellular transmission duty cycling.
There is one more unique offering in this demo. Considering that cellular connectivity might not be the solution for all IoT applications, the SW compatibility of Giant Gecko 11 and all EFM32s with Silicon Labs Wireless Geckos makes it easy to migrate to another wireless SoC or module, if needed. For example, some use cases and markets may use NB-IoT (such as this demo), while others might need their own proprietary sub-GHz solution (Flex Gecko).
For more information about what we’re doing at Embedded World, click here: https://www.silabs.com/products/wireless/internet-of-things.
Trade show season is in full swing, and we’re looking forward to our upcoming trip to Nürnberg, Germany for Embedded World 2018. With over a thousand exhibitors and more than 30,000 attendees, this is the premier event for embedded systems design in the world. And Silicon Labs will be there showing off the latest silicon, software, and solutions that have made us a leader in IoT.
If you’re there, plan on coming by Stand 4A.128 to check out the following demos. And if you want to meet with us, register here.
Come discover why our newest Wi-Fi chips and modules with best in class power and sensitivity are the ideal solution for IoT and other embedded applications. We'll also show you how the advanced security features in these devices, like built-in secure link, secure debug and secure boot protect help your devices and code.
Highly capable, low power systems can be hard to develop, especially when adding wireless connectivity. We’re working to solve this challenge. When your application needs long-range wireless, innovative features, and longer battery-life, our new EFM32 Giant Gecko MCU and the pre-certified Digi XBee3 smart modem come to the rescue. Stop by and see how these solutions, along with Micrium OS and advanced development tools address this challenge in IoT.
Isolation is critical in wired communication, protecting both hardware and humans operating the hardware from high voltages. This demo will show two industrial EFM8 microcontrollers communicating through Silicon Labs’ isolators for a more robust system.
Silicon Labs’ multiprotocol solutions enable advanced connectivity without increased cost or complexity. We’ll be showing off our latest innovations in dynamic multiprotocol, combining Bluetooth and Proprietary Sub-GHz in a single multiprotocol, multi-band wireless SoC.
See how our Bluetooth solutions seamlessly sync with Apple HomeKit and Bluetooth LE applications. With our Blue Gecko and voice over Bluetooth software and hardware, you can enhance your third party Bluetooth enabled devices.
Silicon Labs is the industry leader in mesh networking. With Zigbee, Thread, Bluetooth mesh and Multiprotocol solutions, Silicon Labs can help customers select the right mesh technology for their application. Come learn about the various mesh protocols and see how Silicon Labs hardware, software, tools and reference designs can get you to market faster.
Silicon Labs is showcasing a commercial-grade managed solution for connected product manufacturers. It is illustrated here with a Silicon Lab’s ZigBee SoC, a reference gateway for OEMs and a cloud-based Device Management Service. Go from concept to market-ready IoT solution faster than ever.
Silicon Labs experts will also be speaking on the following topics: