If only hardware innovation could move at the speed of inspiration. Alas, design cycles, parts sourcing, production, and certification requirements can often result in years spent jumping through hoops before a product can be brought to market. This lengthy and costly process means developers lacking the necessary time, team, or capital face insurmountable barriers to entry that ultimately leave great ideas stranded on whiteboards.
We’re seeing this play out in the Internet of Things (IoT) space right now. While tens of billions of IoT devices are expected to hit the low power cellular networks, such as narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and enhanced machine-type communication (eMTC) networks are rapidly being built, we’ll only see a fraction of the innovation that’s possible.
There was a time when software development suffered from long cycles. A major contributor was the constant need to “recreate the wheel,” as developers were forced to constantly build common functionality from scratch.
But the rise of the open source community changed this dynamic, giving access to proven and reliable code that received frequent updates from talented teams comprising coders from around the world. This freed developers to focus efforts on unique and differentiating application requirements, resulting in faster time to market, improved reliability, and reduced costs.
Analyst firm IDC emphasized that IoT development needs to be rapid, iterative, and adaptive. An approach to hardware development modeled after key elements that have made software a success could be the answer, giving IoT’s next hardware hit a head start.
Putting IoT Hardware Development on the Fast Track
Today, the core components of IoT devices such as a radio, processor, power, cameras, sensors, and GPS are already widely available. However, there is a gap between the available hardware and the high-quality final products that can be cost-effectively created with efficiency, attractive design aesthetics, and the ruggedness required to withstand challenging environments. A modular approach to IoT that leverages smart hardware architecture — and understands a system’s physical components and interrelationships — would open the market to a number of developers and unprecedented innovation in this burgeoning industry.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the industries and use cases that could immediately benefit from the ease and speed of modular IoT hardware development.
As expected, a growing number of device makers, security companies, and telecom operators are positioning to own connectivity and monitoring in the home. They are pursuing a significant opportunity to help make homes safer by providing early warnings upon detection of threats like smoke, fire, flooding, vibrations, or dangerous gases. When IoT hardware development is no longer a hurdle, the market will open more broadly to any company that can build a compelling offering and service. Think insurance or power companies, which already have trusted relationships with homeowners and can address key threats with new hardware that looks perfectly at home in any residence.
The ability to remotely monitor the most critical elements of agriculture, smart cities, or water quality can be achieved and built with a range of common sensors. Farmers would gain the ability to understand in real-time weather conditions, if pests or other intruders are present, and soil quality levels. Smart cities can report important information about traffic, data from key plants that keep towns running, or even air quality levels. Necessary sensors can be built with modular IoT hardware in ruggedized casing specifically for outdoor applications, easing deployment challenges, and costs.
Floor by floor, commercial buildings need to accommodate a range of occupant needs and dynamics while still meeting goals tied to efficiencies, operating costs, and service level quality. Modular IoT hardware can be used by landlords and tenants alike to monitor room temperature, humidity, energy usage, and occupancy levels. In parking garage applications, versatile sensors can be configured into flexible hardware that meets a range of needs, such as determining available spots in a lot, more easily signaling available parking to drivers, and supporting emergency communication stations. In retail applications, shoppers could use interactive buttons to ask for help.
Modular IoT hardware will include a common device for local and remote communication that can meet a range of processing needs and integrate with virtually any sensor type. Aesthetics will also be important in bringing these to market.
In previous high-profile tech initiatives, modular hardware has not earned a reputation for gorgeous design. But in an age of sleek, beautiful hardware, a modular approach to IoT must also meet a high bar for design, fitting the application accordingly. This means sensors built for the home must blend naturally into the home’s interior design. Hardware built for outdoor use must be tough, rugged, and suited to the environments in which they’re placed.
All of these devices must be able to communicate via low-power cellular networks or even a local mesh network to ensure flexibility. Specifically, there is a significant opportunity to accelerate the entire IoT market using an end-to-end approach by coupling it with existing effort in the IoT connectivity management and cloud-based software platforms. IoT devices must be pre-integrated with IoT connectivity management and cloud-based IoT cloud systems for secure and efficient onboarding, data collection, and storage. Finally, these devices must be open to ensure hardware owners can integrate with their preferred platforms.
And behind great hardware must be a great open community. A developer portal supported by the open community that can license the design will be important. Members of this open community should be empowered to collaborate and share creativity and specifications to quickly advance hardware developments. There should be a marketplace to promote hardware modules from within the ecosystem.
As a range of industries await the myriad of benefits that are promised to accompany the rise of IoT, efficiently supporting these growing demands with scalable hardware will be critical to success. A thriving IoT marketplace is within reach, but simplified hardware development must come first.