We’re suckers for some retro electronics here at Hackaday, so we were fascinated when Daniel Valuch wrote to us with some pictures of his findings in his CERN lab’s archive. He works on Linear Accelerator 3, which has had an extended downtime after many decades of continuous operation, for major upgrades and overhauls. Part of the upgrade involves the removal of electronic assemblies dating back as far as the 1970s, and he’s shared his fascination with them as he trawls through dusty filing cabinets in the lab basement.
What it reveals is a world before the CAD and microcontrollers we know, instead here are circuits using the electronic building blocks of logic gates, discretes, and op-amps. PCBs are laid out not with the KiCad that CERN are famous in our community for today, but on acetate, with transfers and tape. A ground plane is even hand-carved from a red sheet. Oddly though it isn’t a world without CNC, because in the pouch with a design from 1974 is a roll of punched paper tape. If you have ever pondered the “Numerical” in “Computer Numerical Control”, here are the numbers in physical form.
For those of us who were trained in this type of electronic design, the convenience of a PCB CAD package and a professionally-made PCB at the click of a mouse is nothing short of miraculous. But seeing personally laid boards of this quality reminds us that seeing the hand of the designer in them is something few engineers today (with the possible exception of Boldport) manage to recreate.
Maximizing the Value of Industrial IoT with Private Mobile Networks
There is no shortage of wireless technologies available for IoT deployments, particularly for industrial IoT and factory automation settings. LoRa, Bluetooth, LTE, Z-Wave, Zigbee, and Wi-Fi are all candidates used in commercial deployments today. However, given the reliability, performance, and coverage requirements for industrial IoT and automation applications, it’s clear that 5G is a superior connectivity solution for manufacturers and industrials. So much so that the 3GPP has “baked” time-sensitive networking requirements into its standards process.
When focusing on physical control applications across different vertical markets, especially industrial automation and energy automation, 5G is ideally suited to deliver more deterministic wireless connectivity. Many of today’s industrial automation and manufacturing floor applications can simply no longer tolerate any network delay or latency associated with conventional wireless solutions such as Wi-Fi. If latency is experienced, these applications often time out or stop working, often causing irreversible damage to business operations and loss of revenue and productivity.
New private 5G technology solves these problems with ultra-reliable ultra-low-latency communication (URLLC) capabilities now required for any mission-critical use cases that require 24/7 availability and need to share real-time information. However, how 5G is deployed in an industrial IoT setting is as important as its technology.
Thanks to the FCC’s recent decision to open up an unlicensed wireless spectrum in the CBRS (Citizens Broadband Radio Service) band, industrials interested in IoT now have the opportunity to deploy what’s known as a private mobile network.
This is very similar to the public cellular network that most of us use daily with our smartphones and tablets. Private mobile networks are built using the same 5G protocols, but the networks themselves are not owned and operated by wireless service providers like Verizon, AT&T, and others. A private 5G network is owned and operated by a single organization and geographically bound by that company’s property (like a smart factory) and managed similarly to its Wi-Fi networks today. The organization owns the equipment and data running over the network with complete control over all security and quality of service policies.
Private 5G Networks
Private 5G networks for IoT provide some critical capabilities that are not possible with other wireless technologies. Some of these include:
Private 5G networks are designed explicitly for the kind of network traffic generated by IIoT sensor networks. Moreover, private 5G networks give individual organizations far better control in designing and deploying a RAN (Radio Access Network) on their premise to ensure the ideal coverage for all applications. Private 5G networks are also ideal for outdoor or mixed indoor/outdoor applications.
IIoT use cases, devices, and systems need ultra-reliable connectivity to perform their core functions. From a wireless perspective, private mobile networks are the only option capable of delivering on that requirement.
URLLC technologies inherent in 5G are augmented by private mobile network models, giving industrial organizations the ability to deploy applications that demand real-time communications. Use cases like smart monitoring for worker safety, robotics, and heavy equipment wouldn’t be feasible without this functionality.
The private 5G network model ensures that organizations have complete control over their data and do not rely on a public wireless operator to handle one of its most valuable resources. Another benefit of this new spectrum-based “traffic lane” is that it ensures the manufacturing data traffic is kept local and separate from networks used by guests or other personnel that do not need access to secure data. That built-in security can be a critical element for business and safety reasons.
There are multiple deployment options for private 5G networks. One of the most popular approaches is to “do it yourself” using purpose-built systems designed specifically for enterprise use. Enterprise can purchase the technology from the same supplier channels from which IIoT organizations consume other solutions. These include VARs, system integrators, and even managed service providers (MSPs).
Private 5G networks also afford organizations the rare ability to build the network on their own terms, integrating cellular technology with their existing IT infrastructure. This gives companies complete control over the organizations but does require some level of expertise internally.
Another less popular approach is contracting with a carrier or service provider that already operates a vast 5G public network infrastructure. In this case, companies are offered a “slice” of the public network virtually dedicated to them. This typically requires term contracts with a provider and relinquishes the control of the infrastructure to the operator. If something changes, a new application hits the networks, or some problem arises, the carrier is effectively charged with fixing the issue. When time is of the essence, enterprises must often wait on the carriers to resolve.
Because of its unique ability to overcome many of the inherent wireless problems associated with conventional wireless technologies, private 5G networks have begun to serve as the foundation for myriad IIoT use cases, including:
Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs can be used for security, moving products, and many other applications. These can include wheeled robotic vehicles or even drones.
Computer Vision and Smart Monitoring Applications
In combination with machine learning, imaging is being applied to a wide range of applications. Worker safety and ensuring policy compliance are important to use cases. For example, a smart monitoring solution can ensure the appropriate amount of people are in a given area, monitor moving equipment, and guarantee that workers are wearing appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
Private 5G networks can help identify metal fatigue or manufacturing faults to reduce failures and outages or determine when specific elements need to be replaced. The amount of data required by the HD cameras for this application can be huge and require a 5G connection with its high reliability and performance.
Remote Control of Heavy Equipment
Everything from cranes to earth-moving equipment to oil and gas pumps could benefit from a private 5G network. These applications are often outdoors, which requires the capabilities of 5G wireless in a private model.
These are just a few of the many applications that private 5G networks enable for the Industrial IoT.
Ultimately, based on 4G and 5G cellular wireless technology, emerging private mobile networks now offer a more robust and reliable connectivity option for a myriad of different industrial and manufacturing needs. While 5G on its own has been overhyped as the be-all, end-all for consumers, its deployment within the enterprise will profoundly impact the future of campus networks. Through the use and deployment of private mobile networks, IoT organizations can now gain immense value that translates into lower costs, improved productivity, and unprecedented security and control.
Why Pairing IoT Devices to Things Must be Easy
My father has fully embraced IoT integration into his everyday life. If you spent a day at my parent’s house, you’d notice that a significant number of their household functions are controlled digitally. A sliver of pure irony shines through when I, the millennial who works at an IoT software startup, can’t figure out how to turn on the living room lights. From the speaker system to the thermostat, to the fairy lights on the back porch, almost every digital device in that house can be controlled through Alexa or my dad’s smartphone.
My father’s devotion to maximizing his smart home capacity isn’t so much an edge case but a good look into where many (privileged) houses and modern spaces are headed very soon.
Before his household was successfully established as a facsimile IoT hub, my dad had to connect each device to the wireless network, mobile device, and other devices. As a product designer in the IoT industry, that setup is a process of significant importance to me. Pairing IoT devices to things are something I often must account for when working on IoT solutions. I would be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to thank the brave UX pioneers before me who tackled the very first IoT device pairings and set the standards for what does and doesn’t work.
Several key factors come into play when designing a fluid and easy-to-comprehend pairing journey. For starters, you must take into account what kind of hardware you’re working with. When assessing the hardware, there are ways you can configure a device to communicate a message, even when that device doesn’t have a physical screen. Sensors can often be built with small lights to communicate connectivity status. For example, take a look at your router or modem for an example. You should see several blinking or solid lights, each relaying a different message about the status of your device’s connectivity or signal strength.
When it comes to device setup and pairing, you also have to consider whether the goal is a single item pairing or if you want the ability to batch associate your devices. For example, connecting a wireless speaker to your mobile device is a one-time association. Once it is up, the devices should remember one another and result in easy pairing for as long as you have them. Of course, you want to create a simple and concise experience for setting up your wireless speaker on your phone. Still, since this isn’t going to be a repeat action, there isn’t a massive amount of pressure on the designer to make sure it can be done in one or two clicks maximum.
On the other hand, there are scenarios in which repeat association makes more sense. For example, you may have a person associating trackers with hundreds of cars per day in a vehicle monitoring solution. In this case, your goals as a designer might pivot a bit to account for a quicker association process to avoid user frustration.
In retail IoT solutions, the pairing process plays a significant role in whether or not the product sells. It is increasingly common that someone will purchase a smart device, excited for the accessibility boost it has promised to provide, only to abandon the device altogether due to a frustrating setup experience. More often than not, people also do not have the spare time or patience to call a customer representative to walk them through the setup.
However, it increases the cost for the producer, who must staff and maintain a customer support team that meets this demand for the ones that do make that call. Establishing a comprehensible and fluid pairing setup process for your product will remove this burden from both consumer and producer.
Since IoT solutions often promise increased accessibility, the pairing process for these devices should follow suit. Anyone should pair IoT devices to their networks, other devices, etc., regardless of their technical background. Pairing IoT Devices to things must be easy because it will soon become a universal action as IoT devices further intertwine with household items. Even the least technologically familiar person should follow the instructions on the screen to associate their smart device to their network and other devices.
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When Is Free Really Free? Making Sense of Open Source IoT Platforms
When there’s more than one open-source IoT platform out there, how do you evaluate the one that best fits your needs? What are some common pitfalls to avoid? This article provides a brief overview of the top contenders, with their strengths and weaknesses.
Open Source Relevance
Open source means you are free to use, modify, combine or compile software code in any way you want, without any obligation, as long as you don’t redistribute it using hardware or web services. If you want to embed open source code in your OEM product or service, different options are available based on the type of open source license.
Open Source is relevant because you are not tied to the supplier of the code, thus preventing any unwanted vendor lock-in. Having full access to the source code, you have the flexibility to adjust to changing market conditions and extend, change or pivot when needed. Moreover, you have the ability to add or optimize functionality for your product.
If the code is free, how do open source IoT developers make money? The way most companies make money with open source software is with add-ons and support services. This ranges from paid-for advanced features, organizing a hosted service (SaaS) to project management or support and maintenance for commercial users.
Selecting the Best Open Source Platform
To identify the right open-source IoT platform for your needs, consider the following additional criteria based on organizational needs, quality, and legal concerns:
- Must have functionalities: IoT platforms require a coherent set of functionalities which include the ability to integrate through multiple protocols, use automation, provide data visualizations, use edge gateways, multi-tenancy, as well as provide a front-end strategy and account management and identity services.
- Professional implementations: the extent to which the platform has been adopted by larger organizations is a good signal pointing to the quality of the IoT solution.
- Community backing: is there an active community of users? Watchers and star-gazers are nice, but active contributors are what moves the needle. How recent are code commits to the projects, and is their activity in your region?
- User-friendliness: The flexibility to tailor the code to specific applications is paramount. Great user-friendliness also entails comprehensive documentation and community support.
- Level of open source: Which parts of the IoT platform are open source? Watch out for “bait and switch” offerings where the company’s open-source offering is, in reality, a stripped-down version of their higher-functionality for-pay product. Closely review possible code-use restrictions, such as features that are only available with a for-pay license.
- Professional backing and licensing: Does the open-source entity provide clear copyright and the ability to get a commercial license? Is the copyright owner well-structured and legally sound? This is relevant for professional entities who want to integrate the software as part of their commercial offering and seek long-term professional support.
Top Open Source IoT Platforms
FIWARE is especially popular in Europe and South America. It is professionally backed by Atos, Engineering, NEC, and Telefonica. On the non-profit side, it has the support of the Open Agile and Smart Cities communities. As a whole, it’s solid as a networked organization. However, potential users need to be aware that Fiware is not a single product but a larger series of projects. This makes it hard to use in open source as it is extremely complex and CPU-intensive to deploy into a unified, complete product.
OpenBalena is not a complete IoT platform, merely a device orchestration tool that allows you to manage many devices in the field. It’s a complementary function to all of the other IoT Platforms. Its commercial version ‘BalenaCloud’ is used by many, while the open-source version is somewhat limited, as it uses a simple command-line editor and misses some relevant features and documentation, such as querying your installed base.
Thinger was developed as a complete and friendly solution for small project users, with a few platform integrations. However, with their move to a more extensive pricing plan where features such as MQTT support or dashboard branding are not available for ‘makers’ means, it is no longer completely open source.
Thingsboard has gained significant traction and is backed by investors. It managed to develop an extensive library of visualization widgets and has recently introduced a horizontally scaling solution. Like Thinger, it pushes advanced features from the open-source into a paying commercial model. This IoT platform is most popular with smaller companies.
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