Silicon Labs recently had the opportunity to sit down with Andrea Perdomo to discuss the personal safety company she co-founded, Revolar. Perdomo, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia as a child, shares her personal inspiration behind the product and explains some of the design challenges she experienced launching a simple yet powerful IoT technology that alerts loved ones if the user is in danger.
Can you tell us a little bit about your company Revolar?
Revolar is a personal safety technology company. We created a small device that you clip onto your clothing, key chain, handbag, etc. The device is for those moments where you just need to connect with your loved one. The device is connected to your phone via Bluetooth. There are three different alert levels. The first is a “hey, I’m home or I’m safe” alert. Two clicks is a yellow alert, which is for when you are uncomfortable or just want someone to be with you virtually. And the third alert is for full blown emergencies. We launched our first product in 2015 and launched the new version in April of this year.
What prompted you to create the technology and the company?
My co-founder, Jackie Ros, and I were close friends before we started the company together. Jackie’s younger sister was the ultimate inspiration for Revolar. Her sister was assaulted twice by the age of 17. In both circumstances, her sister didn’t have time to reach for her phone and call for help. Jackie wanted to create a magic button that her sister could press that would let people know where she was and that she needed help. And that’s pretty much what we did. We realized nothing like this existed yet. There were products such as Life Alert and 24/7 trackers for your kids, but nothing in the middle. We had no technology background at all, but we figured out how to do it.
I’m originally from Colombia and I moved to the U.S. for safety and security reasons after my grandmother was kidnapped for eight months. She’s OK now, but if she would have had Revolar, we would have known her last whereabouts and known something was wrong. Then we could have started looking sooner. Instead, we went a whole month without knowing where she was.
What were the circumstances? Was she held for ransom?
Yes, ransom. It was back in the 90s – everybody was getting kidnapped left and right. And my Dad said, “This is it, we can’t live here anymore.” So I’ve been surrounded by the mentality of “stay safe” or “don’t talk to strangers.” Moving to the U.S., it’s definitely safer here. But at the same time, Revolar is for those moments where you just can’t predict it. We started Revolar in Denver – just the two of us – and we slowly grew our team. I went to business school and I’ve always said you don’t know how to start your own business until you do it. We eventually figured it out and found a team of advisors and investors who believed in what we were doing.
What kind of stories and feedback have you received from the users?
We have learned that our customer base is broad – we have male and female users from every age group above 13 years old. So customization of the experience is important. Not everybody is the same – a red alert for one person might be totally different for someone who has food allergies versus someone who is a runner. So we started enhancing our software. Now users can customize messages and change contacts for each alert level. We also learned that people were using Revolar just on the weekends or when they thought something would happen. So in our new version we created ways people can use the device regularly and not just when they need it. For example, the new version will beep so you can find your keys or phone. We also activated step-tracking for active users who want to use Revolar to count steps.
That’s great you’re learning how people are really using it.
Interestingly enough, people are using it for reasons that I never thought of. I kid you not, I know people are using it to let friends know what bar they’re at. Or if they go on a hike, they use it to show people what hike they went on. Or they take check-ins while they are shopping to remember where they were.
Is there a way to aggregate the data about where people of certain ages congregate or use their devices most frequently?
When we talk to police or governing bodies of cities or universities, we always get that question. They say, “You’re telling me that we will know when people are feeling vulnerable or uncomfortable?” A perfect example is if we’re getting a bunch of yellow or red alerts from a certain fraternity at a college campus. We know a lot of this information is sensitive and personal to our customers and we want to respect everyone’s privacy. But at the same time, if we can get our users to let us know why they are using Revolar, we can help people in the future.
Can you tell us about the process of building the device?
Our proof of concept was built by an engineer we contracted with in Colorado. Within three months, we had a functioning prototype. It was jankie and we had to unplug it to set off the alert. We also had to convert our phones to Androids because that was the only way to build the app. We later brought on an advisor who was both an electrical and a mechanical engineer. In two weeks, he built the prototype we ended up using in the first version of our product. We then found an industrial designer to contract for us and that part was fun – making sure the design was pretty. Once we started the manufacturing process, our contract manufacturer brought on the CTO and started putting all of the pieces together.
Was the design of the product a challenge since it hadn’t been done before? Or was it a process smooth?
Oh, no. It was really hard. I remember every engineer I talked to said “Oh, that’s easy, we can do that.” But then there was always something. One of the challenges was size. The battery life was another challenge. And the button, making sure the button was concave enough to remove the risk of false alerts. And features – there were so many features we wanted, but we couldn’t compromise the size or battery life. Initially, we thought it would be a great idea to have four buttons. Then we learned how much it would cost and how much it would drain the battery. Most of the Bluetooth chips that existed at the time powered cell phones or sent messages with high-bandwidth, and we didn’t need all of that. We ended up going with Bluetooth Low Energy because everything else would have taken longer to make. It took us over a year to have the final product.
What specific Silicon Labs products are in the device?
The Wireless Blue Gecko SoC. The product helped us achieve a longer battery life and create our small form factor.
Where do you see IoT going in the next 5-8 years?
I think we’re going to start seeing people consolidate IoT. Especially as we hear people say they don’t want to charge another thing – they want devices to do multiple things. Most people have no idea what IoT means – I’d say 80 percent of the world or more. I still run across people who don’t know what Bluetooth is – or what a wearable is. So although technology is moving fast, there is still a big gap in education. I also think we’ll see wearables and IoT in places that you would never imagine, such as clothing and handbags. I believe tech will become fashion. Probably not in the next 5-8 years, but in the next 20.
A collection of Bluetooth vulnerabilities named “BlueBorne” has just been made public by the security research company Armis. The vulnerabilities are not in the Bluetooth standard itself, but rather in the specific implementations of the Bluetooth standard. The Silicon Labs Bluetooth implementation is different from the affected implementations. Therefore, products based on our Bluetooth software are immune to BlueBorne.
This has been disclosed responsibly, which means that vendors have had time to issue security patches. Therefore, please update and patch all Bluetooth-products based on Android, Windows, iOS or Linux! And if in doubt, follow best practice and update all smart products regardless of protocol and software platform.
As a note, fighting BlueBorne shows the importance of being able to software upgrade connected devices, as discussed here:
We had a wonderful opportunity to speak with Brad Zdroik, Founder of Deep Freeze Fishing. A leader in the emerging IoT development occurring in the outdoor sports market, Deep Freeze Fishing helps fishermen and women avoid the cold while ice fishing by providing an alert system for their lines, freeing them to monitor catches from afar.
So for people not acquainted with Deep Freeze Fishing, tell us about yourself. What’s the elevator pitch explanation of what you do?
We manufacture and sell ice fishing equipment. We’re based in central Wisconsin, and we sell products throughout the northern third of the U.S. and up into Canada as well. We started off with an ice skimmer that clears slush out of your ice augur hole in one scoop, and that’s evolved into the current One Shot Skimmer Pro Edition. But our connected BlueTipz product is now our most popular offering.
How does BlueTipz work exactly? What’s going on under the hood?
BlueTipz is a tip-up alert for ice anglers. Instead of having to stare at your flag all the time waiting and waiting for the fish to bite, you can instead attach our BlueTipz transmitter on the flag. When the tip-up receives a strike and the flag goes up, a sensor in our device pings your phone, freeing you to be inside your fishing shack keeping warm for longer stretches of time until right when you need to actually take care of your line.
BlueTipz also allows you to be much more flexible during night fishing. Not only do we have a light on the tip-up that lights up, but you can also name individual tip-ups within the app so you know exactly which one has gotten a strike; it definitely saves you some stumbling around in the cold and dark. That’s a great benefit especially in the states that allow you have up to 10–15 lines going at once.
And what’s the story of how you arrived at a solution for ice fishing diehards? It’s definitely a unique niche. How did Deep Freeze Fishing even come about?
I actually went to school for electrical engineering and did my corporate cubicle stint and was just feeling restless. I moved back home to central Wisconsin kind of searching for what to do. I always loved the sport of ice fishing, and just fiddling around with my Dad, we created the One Shot Skimmer product that represents Deep Freeze’s beginning, though certainly not very techy of course.
Around the same time, smartphone apps were beginning to ramp up, and there were a couple other products beginning to hit the market that provided tip-up alerts. But my brother Ryan and I weren’t crazy about any of them and thought they could work much, much better. So we decided to build our own, and that is how BlueTipz was born.
How would you say your solution has evolved since 2012 when you started out, as well as your design challenges over time?
The core solution has actually remained the same since we started. It’s become more of a matter of putting more high-quality, sophisticated hardware pieces inside as technology has gotten better since we started out in 2012. That has let us extend battery life over time and continue to be able to keep working in temperatures as low as -20° to -30° F. Being able to withstand the brutal open cold is hands-down what’s always driving us. If a component can’t take the cold, we can’t use it.
We also have about a 600-foot range from BlueTipz to your phone, and that’s grown from our original capabilities. We’ve had to make sure the signal can make it through a typical fishing shack and the human body, so we’ve definitely invested in boosting the signal itself and always make sure the Bluetooth module can do its job.
What Silicon Labs’ product are you using in BlueTipz? And why did you select it?
We started out with the Bluegiga BLE112 and have actually transitioned over to the Bluegiga BLE121LR to get the extended signal range. It’s a good value and it can withstand the extreme cold. We couldn’t be happier with it.
What do see in the future for Deep Freeze Fishing?
Ice fishing is obviously a niche market within fishing; we hope to develop some applications for open-water fishing as that is obviously a substantially larger market. We feel the whole space is lacking in terms of IoT development.
In closing, we always ask our IoT Heroes one Bonus Question: Where do you see the collective IoT heading in the next 5–8 years in your opinion?
As I said, we think even just regular fishing is vastly lacking in connected development that could really be meaningful and helpful for end-users. The industry is just behind all the amazing things we see on the news. I think we are really going to witness a blossoming of applications across the board in the coming years for outdoor sports users, and that’s exciting.
With 15 years’ experience in 802.15.4 networking and more than 100 million mesh devices shipped, we’re bringing our extensive expertise to bear on helping developers simplify mesh design and take advantage of the opportunities that many-to-many networking bring to the IoT market.
Today we’re announcing a comprehensive suite of software and hardware supporting the new Bluetooth mesh specification. Our new software and SDK for Bluetooth development supports Bluetooth mesh and Bluetooth 5 functionality so developers can add mesh communication to low energy devices.
The Benefits of Mesh Networking
Mesh networking, which is now available for Bluetooth low energy devices, enables many-to-many (m:m) communication. This makes it ideally suited for creating large-scale node networks and great for building and smart home automation, asset tracking, and sensor networks. With building and smart homes, for example, devices can communicate directly with each other, so flipping on a light switch no longer involves routing communication through a router or gateway. End-consumers already know what it’s like to flip a switch and have a light come on instantly, so moving to a smart system needs to be able to duplicate that experience without any perceived lag. As we see more and more mainstream adoption of smart home applications, user experience is critical to growth in the market.
For lighting systems, deployment and management can be simplified with mesh. The extended connectivity range means lights can be deployed at a greater distance from a hub vs a star network. A hub or gateway can be placed in one location and connected lights deployed. As each light is deployed the range of communication grows, allowing a single gateway to effectively cover a larger area.
Beaconing is another area where mesh networking offers significant performance benefits. Used for retail marketing or asset tracking, beacons can be more easily managed with a mesh network because they are not required to be within range of a phone.
How We Can Help
Our certified modules, including the world’s smallest Bluetooth SiP module (BGM11S), can help accelerate time-to-market and maintain software compatibility with the latest EFR32BG13 Blue Gecko SoCs. With Blue Gecko SoCs, companies can bring products to market that take advantage of the full capabilities of Bluetooth 5 and Bluetooth mesh connectivity and support over-the-air (OTA) updates with on-chip memory.
Silicon Labs' Blue Gecko Bluetooth Wireless Starter Kit provides you with Bluetooth 5 and Bluetooth mesh connectivity with the on-board EFR32BG13 SoC as has debug capabilities over USB and Ethernet providing an uncompromised developer experience. We also provide developers with a Bluetooth mesh stack for Android, which allows smart phones to provision, configure, and control mesh nodes. And since we provide the mesh stack, customers do not need to write this again, further simplifying development and accelerating time-to-market.
Other features include:
For more information about Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth mesh development tools, software stack, SoCs, modules and starter kits, visit www.silabs.com/bluetooth-mesh.
We recently took the opportunity to chat with Greg Tracy, co-founder and CTO of Propeller Health. A player in the healthcare space from Wisconsin, Propeller Health has been focused on leveraging cutting-edge technology to help asthma and COPD patients in a never-before-seen way.
Tell us about your core offering
Propeller is the leading digital platform to help people better manage respiratory conditions through sensors, mobile interfaces, and other services. The main conditions being asthma and COPD. Ultimately, we’re helping reduce the cost of care while delivering better quality of life for patients because we’re helping them remember when to take their medications and learn what their triggers are.
How did you arrive at helping people with these particular conditions? Healthcare is obviously a vast space, and we’d love to know how you landed where you did.
My cofounder and the CEO of the business today is David Van Sickle. David is an asthma epidemiologist; he’s been studying asthma his whole career. David was always puzzled by the lack of data he faced. And just organically during a medical fellowship at the University of Wisconsin, he started doing research on instrumenting inhaled medications and how that could become the method for data collection.
In 2010, David and I met through the third cofounder, Mark Gehring, and began exploring commercializing the work David started on campus. That was the birth of Propeller Health. That was the core: instrumenting inhaled medications to provide more insight back to patients so that they could understand the triggers that were causing some of their worst symptoms.
And by triggers, you mean helping patients identify maybe the times of day, or maybe even the locations or conditions where distress could be activated?
Exactly. What people should know is that there are very effective drugs on the market for treating both asthma and COPD. But what has been missing is more insight into the moments when people begin to be symptomatic. Our mission is to close the gap between those moments and effective treatment, to provide the insight the patient needs right when they need it.
We want to understand the environmental triggers, even specific locations that might be impacting your symptoms. The times of day, days of the week, that sort of thing. There’s some more outward-looking forecasting work as well. Taking into account all your prior history, our solution also monitors the forecast for air quality, pollen, and other weather conditions. Basically we want to give people a personalized forecast for the next week.
So tell us how does your solution work exactly. What’s going on under the hood?
Sure. It’s very straightforward. Users just attach our device directly to their inhaler after sign-up, and we take it from here. We describe ourselves as a “hardware-enabled software company.” Most of the real magic of the system are the analytics and insights that we can find and put together, based on your data and all of the complementary data that’s based on location, environmental factors, and other sensors.
But the secret sauce of all of that are the sensors themselves for several reasons. Mainly because if you can't collect that data passively, it’s really hard to get the analytics engine to work effectively. I think a lot of people peg us as a sensor company. We really consider ourselves a software company that is enabled by this really great, small, low-power piece of hardware that makes it easy for data collection.
Having the piece of electronics on the medication creates so many new opportunities. For example, when we instrument meds that users are supposed to take every day, we can use audible reminders on that device to help them remember when to take them. So we’ll push your personal schedule when you’re supposed to take your meds, so 9:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. And that schedule will persist on the sensor and give you a little chime when it's time to take your meds, if you haven't taken them already. Using accelerometers on the device, we can start to measure whether or not the medication is being used correctly, if it’s in the right orientation when the medication is dispensed. You can put microphones on it to listen for breath sounds and understand whether or not they have adequately inhaled the medication correctly. So what started out as this nice, clever data collection mechanism has evolved into a service that can provide feedback directly to the user in other ways.
How would you say your solution has evolved since 2010 when you started out?
Well, a big change is that we’ve tackled more in respiratory. We started off with only asthma, and in 2014 we expanded the platform to also include COPD. It’s a very different population to serve, since it’s a chronic condition that’s much harder to treat and the patient pool is typically the elderly.
Broadly speaking though, I would say our evolution mirrors most startups, where you start to understand the types of features that patients are interested in, and the types of insights that people are interested in, and you’re evolving constantly. Over time we’ve become a much more passive solution. We don’t expect patients to report in a lot or be bothered unnecessarily. We try to limit outreach to those moments when there’s something actionable or there’s an important new insight. We don’t want to constantly remind them they’re having to maintain a chronic condition. We want to help in a meaningful, nonintrusive way that simplifies their lives and improves their overall quality of life.
What design challenges have you faced during this evolution?
In addition to wanting to make the solution very passive for consumers, three other things come to mind. We wanted to make sure we had a long battery life. Early on, we were all happy because we got a 30-day charge, but then we saw people were not in the habit of charging things every 30 days. Low energy technology made that problem pretty much go away.
Secondly, early on we struggled with simple stuff like attachment. There are lots of different delivery devices, and how do you attach to all of them and make that simple? We've had a lot of innovation on the enclosure just with simple attachment systems. Lastly, pairing has always been difficult, especially in the iOS ecosystem. So we actually took a path of eliminating pairing from our sensors, and instead rely on a whitelisting technique inside of our apps.
Are you working directly with pharmaceutical companies?
We do. The respiratory pharma companies recognize Propeller Health as a complimentary digital solution working alongside the drugs, ultimately rendering them even more effective by helping optimize when people take them. I think they appreciate we’ve created an easy system that helps patients remember to take their general daily dose and then provides insights for when they’re using their reliever medications.
What Silicon Labs’ product are you using at Propeller? And why did you select it?
A big, ongoing design factor for us is overall cost of goods. That’s because we sell into a market that’s very price sensitive. Of course, you also want any part you use to do the job right.
We felt the Blue Gecko BGM121 Bluetooth Smart SiP module was the perfect marriage of good value and functionality. The beauty of it for us is that it encapsulated a microprocessor along with all of the BLE functionality. So we could drop a part, reducing the overall footprint. We also decided to use Silicon Labs again with another device coming out this fall as well. In that case, it’s letting us actually go from two boards down to one and really simplify design again.
Where do you see the collective IoT heading in the next 5–8 years in your opinion?
What comes to mind is actually what I’m hopeful for. I’m hopeful that the world takes advantage of IoT in a very passive way. And what I mean by that is, using it to automate more and just stay out in front of things, rather than giving all of us some new piece of technology or a new app to tinker with just because we can. So in a nutshell, helpful and unobtrusive. Not just more technology for technology’s sake.
Charles Sun is the vice president of R&D at Sengled, a company that’s built its design philosophy around helping customers simplify their surroundings with innovative lighting products. We recently got to chat with Charles about some of the things Sengled is doing in the smart lighting arena.
How did Sengled become a company, what was the impetus for its creation?
Sengled has been dedicated to making daily life heathy, happy, and convenient through lighting products designed for simplicity and style.
Aesthetic design seems to be an important element of the Sengled brand, what are some of the challenges that come with designing for ease-of-use as well as looks?
Our goal isn’t to change light bulbs so dramatically that it becomes difficult for users to adopt them. In the design tone and manner, we try to keep the existing form factor and appearance consistent while incorporating modern characteristics of high-tech functionality. We try to transform a traditional light bulb or lamp into smart lighting seamlessly. However, there are several real challenges to overcome. In addition to meeting appearance standards for the design, we must solve the interaction problem of cooling the LEDs, managing the high-speed circuitry of the hardware and RF design to achieve the desired aesthetic, and meeting reliability and performance standards without increasing their size in comparison with the traditional lighting products.
Tell us about some of the innovations you’ve pioneered, specifically with integrating audio and security into LEDs.
Our multi-channel wireless speaker system, Pulse, is a synchronous multi-channel speaker light and the world's first one that can play with a mobile phone. It can support up to eight lights simultaneously while playing music and can adjust each light to the sound and volume for each speaker. Integrated with an IP Camera, our Snap can achieve 1080p HD real-time video viewing, video cloud storage, and high-precision motion detection with the full function of standard waterproof PAR38 lighting.
How long has Silicon Labs been part of your solution, and can you tell us about the selection process? What made Silicon Labs the choice for you?
We selected Silicon Labs in 2015 after evaluating five zigbee solution vendors. In making the decision, we carefully considered product performance, protocol stability and compatibility, as well as in-time technical and business support.
You recently received the Innovation Award in Eco-Design and Sustainable Technologies category at CES, can you tell us about what sets Pulse Link and Element apart from such a busy market?
Pulse Link is an extension of the Pulse family. It evolved from a multi-channel Bluetooth playback speaker system into a video playback system. Its typical application is for watching TV in living room. At present, most companies designing the connected bulb only provide the most basic connection and control functions. In addition to our modern design, excellent RF performance, and stable performance, the Element is our first energy-saving LED as well as the first in our tree planting plan. The Element combines built-in, cost-effective power detection circuitry and algorithms (has been granted US patent), making our products unique and in line with the current trend of energy-saving and carbon emission reduction.
Finally, where do you see the IoT market heading in the next 5-10 years?
Integrated IoT solution with lighting and security should be the focus of the future. If the product experience and price can be dramatically improved at the same time, the progress will be accelerated.
We were excited to recently sit down with Gimmy Chu, the CEO and a cofounder of Nanoleaf, a Smart Lighting company. With worldwide offices in Canada, Hong Kong, and China, Nanoleaf has been delivering never-before-seen lighting designs since 2012 with a passion for cutting-edge design and sustainability.
Tell us a little about Nanoleaf; how do you describe your work to people?
At our core, we are a smart lighting company on a mission for sustainability. We believe in creating smarter, more efficient lighting that offers a more exciting experience for consumers while also forging a more sustainable future for the planet. We often say that we want to break the barriers between doing good, looking good, and feeling good. We’ve focused a lot on thinking outside of the box when it comes down to product design as well; that is truly one of our passions.
Your award-winning design work certainly speaks for itself. How did you even begin to approach smart lighting in the way that you do? You’re very unique.
The other two cofounders and I were actually friends at university. We had a really strong bond. And a lot of that forged over the three of us building solar-powered cars together in a class. After graduation, the world pulled us in different ways. One of us went into pharmaceuticals, one into manufacturing in China, and I was on a more traditional corporate path of my own.
Despite the distance, we kept in touch. And more important, we kept trying to brainstorm ways we could work together again, what we could try and make together that was completely different. Because that’s another one of our drivers: we want to make things that just don’t exist in the market. After many late-night Skype sessions, we landed on lighting as a great way to contribute to sustainability.
Our first product we made together was actually a standard light bulb, but it was actually the most energy-efficient light bulb in the world; and we actually still offer a Classic Series of light bulb technology. But then the market demands of the IoT called us, and the necessity to play in a system where people could control their light bulbs, and where the light bulbs could talk to other devices as needed—that’s what we dove into.
Our forays into the IoT spaces included the Smarter Kit we crowd-funded on Indiegogo—an Apple HomeKit-compatible offering. It was outfitted with a Nanoleaf Hub that allowed integration with Apple and a Nanoleaf Smart Ivy bulb. The Smart Ivy bulb still has more power than any other smart bulb on the market today. It’s a 60W equivalent bulb that uses only 7.5W of energy to produce 800 Lumens, and we managed to give it an Art Deco design no one had ever seen before in a light bulb.
And our newest product offering is the Nanoleaf Aurora. It’s a set of modular LED panels that truly lets people customize and illuminate their space in ways that simply weren't possible before. You can control it and customize it completely to your taste and space—even with your voice. The Aurora was largely inspired by the idea of recreating natural light, so that people could experience the same warm soothing qualities indoors as well—especially during winter when there’s less sunlight hours.
And what’s next for Nanoleaf? Where do you see Smart Lighting itself heading?
We’re working on a new line that will launch this fall called the Aurora Rhythm. Like with everything we’ve done, we’re trying to push people to think outside the notion that lighting is just approximating a candle—the original home lighting product. Lighting has profound effects on your mood, energy levels, and overall well-being. It’s a very important aspect of living well every day, and we want to help improve that with each new product we release.
Can you elaborate on your approximating a candle comment? That’s intriguing.
Well, the thing about lighting in my opinion is that for a long time a light bulb was really just taking the idea of a candle flame and turning it upside down to hang from the ceiling, then connecting it to wires to light up a whole home. This idea of using light in a room is the box that people have placed lighting in. With today’s technology, we’ve eliminated these restrictions. The freedom of the Aurora panels lets people control and customize where they want their lighting, the shape and design, as well as the specific colors they want to set. It offers a full spectrum of lighting customizations to play with. Smart lighting is going to continue to push this boundary, as it should.
What Silicon Labs product are you using at Nanoleaf, and why did you go with it?
We’ve been using Silicon Labs since the beginning, and they’ve been integrated into several products now. The Smarter Kit I mentioned used your ZigBee SoCs and communications stack. These had a very low power implementation and were very easy to use. The Aurora used an 8-bit MCU. And the upcoming Aurora Rhythm slated for release this August is using the Bluetooth Blue Gecko SoC.
I will also genuinely say that we’ve truly valued our partnership with Silicon Labs. Our R&D team has spent time with your R&D teams. The environment is collaborative with an openness to help each other and share knowledge. This kind of collaboration has helped us push boundaries and reach our goals. It’s been a trusted, pivotal partnership in my mind.
Where do you see the collective IoT heading in the next 5–8 years in your opinion given your overall exposure to the space?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that the standardization issue hopefully will get more resolution. A lot of entities out there still seem to be vested in a more proprietary approach to the IoT. Real standardization of the protocols everyone is following will really push the IoT to its next level of innovation in my opinion. The other thing to watch for is the progress of both voice recognition and AI within the space.
The connected lighting market is gaining serious momentum. The high expectations consumers have had for the industry are starting to materialize, and access to lighting development kits to simplify efforts is increasing. Product marketing engineer Alex Koepsel recently sat down to address some of the pressing questions facing the market, including taking a look at the different technologies and standards emerging, some of the most common applications, and a look at some of the design challenges facing developers.
Roughly how large is the wireless lighting market today?
According to IHS Markit™ research data, the wireless lighting market is expected to increase from 17 million units shipped today to 52 million units in 2020. Other sources, such as Wireless Sensor Networks, are more bullish and forecast as much as 230 million units in 2020.
What’s driving the market movement to wireless?
For home lighting applications, quality of life and convenience are the most valuable reasons; for commercial use—such as retail and hotel applications—aesthetics is important; and for industrial applications, the main driver is cost savings.
Is there one dominant wireless technology for lighting?
Based on the answer above, it’s easy to see that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The right solution depends on the application and end-user requirements. For example, a family setting up lighting in their home would most likely prioritize ease of use and installation, while a multi-building manufacturing facility with thousands of lights and differently scheduled operational needs might require a more robust, secure system with scalable and long-range networking capability.
What are some popular examples of wireless technologies?
It depends on the specific environment and user needs, but some popular technologies are zigbee and Sub-GHz proprietary protocols, and others are growing in popularity, such as Thread and Bluetooth lighting. Presently, the zigbee PRO and its predecessor zigbee Light Link are the most widely used. Monitored by the zigbee Alliance, these specifications help to describe application-messaging protocols for lighting control and include mechanisms that make out-of-the-box operation simple, plus, for an engineering audience, make development simple. It’s worth noting that the zigbee 3.0 specification announced in 2016 is expected to replace the current specification in 2017, and as a part of market rebranding, the technology is now referred to as zigbee™ with the former application libraries becoming an IoT-centric application layer now called dotdot™.
If Bluetooth is for streaming audio, why is this now being used in lighting?
Bluetooth has actually expanded beyond just audio streaming, and it’s a popular technology because it connects to some of the most pervasive devices on the planet—smartphones. These newer and more user-friendly devices are perfect for setting up and controlling wireless lighting networks and offer some really cool applications, such as enabling light fixtures to send out Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons for advertising, geolocation, and other dual-purpose applications. That being said, Bluetooth lighting in scaled systems of many lights will most likely be joined by another wireless technology, due to the proven software and scalability of those accompanying technologies.
Why not use Wi-Fi?
Many people think of Wi-Fi because it is familiar and used all over the world, but Wi-Fi consumes a lot of power and has yet to have defined software for lighting—the “application layer” according to software developers. Having no app-layer or software toolbox to build from often adds months to a project development cycle. In addition, Wi-Fi hardware tends to be slightly higher cost than the alternative 802.15.4 solutions such as zigbee and Thread.
What factors go into deciding the right wireless technology?
A lot of factors come into play depending on your application. For example, systems can be as simple as a single on/off light switch or as complex as a fully featured lighting solution for a hotel/casino or manufacturing plant. Some considerations include the size and density of the network (how many lights or nodes will be controlled), the overall building environment, setup and installation requirements, installation budgets, and maintenance requirements.
What are the biggest challenges or obstacles to developing wireless lighting?
Some of the biggest challenges are cost pressures, time to market, and the associated learning curve of figuring out the wireless part of the design. For developers who are not well-versed in the inner workings of IoT (Internet of Things), it can be difficult. In terms of lighting specifically, an average zigbee light bulb has 15,000 lines of code. Compare that to a simple wired on/off light bulb that could be programmed on an MCU and can be coded in less than five minutes.
Are there any plug-and-play solutions on the market (for developers to use)?
There are some application notes and white papers that have been made available by both lighting experts and semiconductor companies. There are also some hardware and software reference designs that exist, and a few are available for purchase as open-source designs that can help developers solve some of the more difficult networking challenges.
How do I pick which wireless protocol to use in my system?
This question is difficult to answer due to all the variables mentioned so far. One thing to consider, though, to reduce the risk of future obsolescence is to find a solution that is flexible and can support many protocols. Innovation in the semiconductor market space has enabled that capability, to simplify hardware designs with a single chip solution.
What about the networking software? Can I just license wireless lighting software to save myself time?
Some companies have addressed that question and made efforts to better enable developers with wireless lighting software (“stacks”). zigbee, mentioned earlier, is a mature solution and a few companies have developed “Golden Unit” approved stacks that are available through low-cost kit purchases. Silicon Labs, TI, and NXP are a few examples of providers. Because zigbee is a mesh technology, some of those companies are now extending their leadership into Thread and Thread stack offerings, which adds Internet (IP) addressing.
What is the best advice for development teams working on wireless lighting applications?
Like most complex engineering projects, it is critical to understand and translate the consumers’ requirements as best as possible to design a great paper concept from the start. Then, from there, valuable resources are available to help cut development time and to deploy world-class wireless lighting products. I’ve seen engineering teams small and large take advantage of this. Examples of these resources include hardware reference designs, software design files, development plugin tools, networking debug tools, and training resources such as app notes. Overall, leveraging the expertise and solutions that other industry leaders are providing will make a huge difference.
For information about Silicon Labs’ lighting solutions, click here.
As you know, the number of devices for the connected home is growing faster than you can say “Alexa.” And as this world expands, it’s important to understand the way in which all of these devices communicate with each other.
That’s where wireless communication protocols come into play. Let’s take a look at the most commonly used wireless protocols and discuss which use cases are best for each.
For low-data-rate applications like home security and automation, sub-GHz networks (operating at frequencies below 1 GHz) offer substantive benefits over the more powerful and feature-rich protocols such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth™ and ZigBee operating in the 2.4 GHz band.
Range is one area where a sub-GHz network shines. Narrowband transmissions can operate uninterrupted for a kilometer or more. They transmit data to distant hubs without hopping from node to node. However, this longer range can also come with increased interference from adjacent devices. Lower interference can be a benefit, in regions where a wide range of sub-GHz frequencies, and these frequencies are less ‘crowded’ than the 2.4 GHz band. However, in some regions there are few available sub-GHz channels and they may have duty cycle restrictions limiting the time a device can be transmitting. Finally, sub-GHz wireless also uses very little power compared to 2.4 GHz protocols.
However, sub-GHz networks aren’t a perfect fit for every aspect of the connected home. Many of the existing sub-GHz networks use proprietary protocols and are closed systems. Such systems often require application translation to communicate with other systems. Intra-home communication, and communication to a data services and controls that might reside in the cloud, can be more complex using sub-GHz wireless.
Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
Wi-Fi is the best known protocol by far, because most of us use it in our own homes every day, and have for more than a decade. This wide adoption has been fostered by the standards and upgrades The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) provides through letter designations (b/g/n), while the Wi-Fi Alliance manages certification and branding of devices.
The chief advantage of Wi-Fi is its familiarity, the perception that it is “easy” compared to other protocols, and its ubiquity in existing homes. After all, the precursor to Wi-Fi was first developed in 1991. At this point most tech-savvy homeowners (the likely customer base for current connected home products) can reset a Wi-Fi router to troubleshoot basic issues.
Wi-Fi defines a MAC layer protocol and security but it does not define application objects for devices and how they communicate. This means each manufacturer can define their own application level protocol and device to device communication is complex or impossible unless two companies work closely together to define them. This limits Wi-Fi usage in the device to device market for the connected home. Wi-Fi also assumes a central access point model of a network which means if that access point is not operating the network stops functioning.
Wi-Fi consumes a great deal of power relative to other protocols so while suitable for powered devices it does not do as well in applications where battery powered operation is critical. Wi-Fi has also shown issues around scalability. For example, some routers are configured to only support a maximum of 15 devices where the connected home is expected to have closer to 100 devices.
Another issue is competition on the Wi-Fi network due to the variety of data sources. If you have streaming video competing with your thermostat, both data streams may not get the bandwidth they need. And if you thought having your streaming TV show competing with your kids’ video game download was inconvenient, imagine having your thermostat trying to get in on the bandwidth, too.
Bluetooth™ with Low Energy Functionality
Bluetooth is a short-range communications protocol that is ubiquitous in smartphones applications. It doesn’t require a special gateway to function because it already uses the smartphone or mobile devices, but it does have some drawbacks. It is only a point-to-point network, which limits its range and reliability. If your smart phone is not in range or not in the home then connectivity is lost. Bluetooth does not currently natively support IP addressing but this is being worked on as an update to the Bluetooth Standards.
Bluetooth does have standard application protocols but these are generally related to the phone or PC use cases and not device to device communication in the connected home.
ZigBee was first standardized in 2004, and features lower power consumption relative to Wi-Fi. It operates on the IEEE’s 802.15.4 physical radio specification (as opposed to the more familiar 802.11 of Wi-Fi fame). ZigBee is used heavily in home automation mesh networks currently, as well as in many industrial applications.
ZigBee has created a set of application protocols defining a wide range of devices and their communication patterns for device to device usage in home and businesses. These application protocols were developed within an Alliance of companies so there is a healthy ecosystem of products as well as competing silicon providers.
There are numerous advantages to the ZigBee protocol, including its reliability, scalability and ability to self-heal its mesh network:
Reliability: Devices on a ZigBee network can communicate with each other even if the gateway goes down or there is no gateway to begin with.
Scalability: ZigBee and other 802.15.4 protocols are not constrained by the number of devices they can have per router. You can add dozens, even hundreds, of devices without reaching an upper limit.
Self-Healing: If the Personal Area Network (or PAN) coordinator for the mesh network is no longer available or is inoperable, the mesh seamlessly fails over and continues to function. Think of it like RAID for your computer—if one hard drive goes down, then the mirrored second hard drive takes over so that your work isn’t interrupted. In the case of home automation, it means that your thermostat still works even if your gateway is down.
The Z-Wave protocol is primarily devoted to home control and monitoring, and is proprietary in nature. Home security companies use the Z-Wave wireless protocol to create networks of door/window sensors, fire detectors, thermostats and other home automation devices that are accessible through high-level applications or even over the Web. Z-Wave functions best in low-bandwidth, sub-GHz deployments.
Z-Wave has created an application protocol to standardize how devices communicate with each other to allow true device to device communication in the home. However, this standard is controlled by one company making growth and expansion difficult. The application layer protocol is not IP friendly and required translation into IP protocols for device to cloud or phone communications.
Z-Wave is not an open standard and requires both address and application translation to communicate with devices on the internet. Z-Wave requires a gateway to function creating a single point of failure in the networks. Additionally, the protocol assumes that devices are static, disallowing mobile devices (like remote controls) from joining the network.
Thread is a new open standard that assigns an Internet Protocol (IP) address to every device on a network, and that IP address extends through the node. Thread provides device-to-device communication without the need for an application gateway.
Thread presents three major advantages:
Scalability: The average connected home will host a hundred devices. If that sounds like a lot, just remember that every window and door will have a sensor, and every room will be monitored for temperature and humidity. At that rate, complexity and scale grows exponentially.
Interoperability: With so many devices in play within a single mesh network, it’s important that they all communicate with each other and with the home owner in an intelligent and effective manner.
Less expensive and simpler hardware:
It’s not a new story that as a technology becomes more widely adopted the cost of devices tends to go down. (Look at what happened with flat-screen televisions over the last decade.) IP-based technology is well known and easy to implement.
While Thread is in development, there’s no need to hold off on developing products for the connected home. Any product using existing 802.15.4 silicon can be updated over-the-air (OTA) to the Thread IP-based protocol. This allows continued deployment of existing systems knowing they can be upgraded to Thread when the system is ready.
Security and the Connected Home
Security is built into many of the existing mesh-network connected home protocols at a deep level in the software stack, for example, using AES encryption at the 802.15.4 MAC layer. Traffic is always encrypted, and with the addition of authentication technology, all nodes will have the capability to require authentication to communicate with each other and the network.
Even devices using low level security in the software stacks are only as secure as the method used to install the keys in new devices. Weaknesses in this key installation or device bring up then require rekeying of the entire system.
IP Connectivity and the Connected Home
The existing protocols in the home are a mix of IP and not-IP stacks. Other markets and networks have converged onto IP because it offers a number of different addressing, routing and security mechanisms that can be selected for a given network or device and still allow end to end addressability and routing of messages without application layer translation. The rapid expansion of the Internet into other industries and market segments is an indication of how this technology shift opens up innovation and rapid development of new services and devices over the appropriate IP infrastructure.
The use of IP also allows a mix of underlying technologies with bridging devices between the different MAC/PHY so that an application running on your PC at home connected over Ethernet can also run wirelessly to your cell phone using Wi-Fi or a cellular connection. This type of seamless connectivity is important in many new application areas where consumers expect control while in their home but also from their phone when traveling.
The Connected Home is an area where large numbers of companies are innovating and creating new devices and services. Some of these services require high bandwidth and are more suitable for using Wi-Fi, while others are constrained battery operated sensors that would prefer using the 802.15.4 lower power radios and a ZigBee stack today, migrating to a Thread stack in the future.
As the Internet of Things and the Connected Home continue to explode in popularity, it won’t be uncommon to have several protocols running simultaneously in your home, just like you do in your smartphone. It isn’t a case of one protocol “winning,” but rather finding the right combinations of protocols to keep your IoT applications happily communicating with each other, the gateway, the cloud, and the consumer.
What applications do you anticipate enabling your home? We may not be getting our flying cars anytime soon, but with the proliferation of devices and protocols available, we’ll soon have connected homes that function seamlessly to make our environments more convenient, comfortable and energy-friendly.