Internet of Things – Low-Power Wide Area Networking Development Kit – Electronic design services with Argon Design Ltd.

Internet of Things – Low-Power Wide Area Networking Development Kit

Skill sets used

Embedded products, Electronic engineering, Portable products, User interfaces, Software engineering, Product definition, Business advantage

The Challenge

The Internet of Things is expected to grow at an enormous rate – predictions of numbers vary, but there will be tens of billions of devices connected to the internet over the next few years. These devices will be deployed in homes, automobiles, factories – all around us. They will become ubiquitous for professionals and consumers alike. One of the challenges for this growth is the communications technology connecting each individual device to the internet. Wireless connections are convenient for many applications, offering ease of installation and flexibility, but commonly used wireless protocols such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have limitations, particularly for battery powered devices which may be expected to work unattended for many years. For these applications energy consumption and wireless coverage are important factors.

Our client, Neul, is at the forefront of promoting and developing low-power wide-area networking technologies specifically for Internet of Things applications. Neul’s technology promises an optimised combination of cost, coverage, battery life, security and ease of configuration. In developing a new communications protocol it is important to achieve a critical mass of users as soon as possible and Neul needed to achieve broadest possible adoption of their solution, by removing technical obstacles and encouraging product and service developers to experience its advantages. Neul had already developed the NT1001 terminal module, incorporating their Iceni chip, which implements both RF and baseband functions.

Argon had previously worked with Neul to develop a low power wide area basestation. With demand for Neul’s technology increasing, and their internal team busy on development work for other parts of the system, we were asked to take responsibility for the creation of the Development Kit.

Based around the NT1001 module, the Development Kit was the next step in making it as easy as possible to develop an Internet of Things application using Neul’s technology. A user-friendly web-based interface would allow system configuration and provide access to a range of flexible I/O functions on the terminal hardware (at the “Thing” end of the Internet of Things) enabling two-way communication with the world via a Service Provider Cloud application on the Internet. The kit would be presented as a high quality packaged product with full supporting documentation and customer support.


Our Approach

Argon initially focused on user requirements, and worked closely with Neul to refine the specification of the Development Kit – it would comprise the following components:

  • Development PCB – including the NT1001 module
  • Service Provider Cloud application and GUI – user interface and associated services software to allow a user to communicate with the terminal
  • Soft Radio – PC hosted software to allow the PC to act as a modem connection to the Cloud, allowing development to take place without a radio connection
  • Packaging – the Development Kit would be presented as a professional package, containing everything that was needed to start developing
  • User documentation – User Manual and Quick Start Guide
  • Customer support platform

With the initial requirements agreed, we worked with Neul to produce a detailed definition of the work packages to deliver those requirements, and agree the interfaces between the parts to be developed by the Argon and Neul teams. The programme was broken down into the following elements:

Embedded software

We assisted with the embedded software of the NT1001, where we worked on the I/O functions while Neul worked on the core radio system. To improve communications and accelerate development the Argon team initially worked onsite at Neul’s offices.

The NT1001 was intended to interface to a range of sensors and devices. We developed a structure for I/O profiles which define the behaviour of inputs and outputs for particular device types. This provides an expandable and flexible framework. We then developed a number of individual profiles tightly written in C. These run under FreeRTOS as tasks on the terminal’s embedded processor.

One of these profiles is the Device I/O profile, which provides a direct interface to a range of sensor types, configured as digital or analogue I/Os, with additional features such as interrupts, frequency sensing and timers. The software allows full use of all the inbuilt I/O capabilities of the NT1001 terminal module.

Another profile we developed is the UART profile, which allows the terminal device to communicate with other devices such as an external microcontroller using a standard UART interface, opening the door to a huge range of interfacing opportunities.

Server

The cloud structure comprises a core communications platform run by Neul and a higher level interface provided by each service provider using the Neul platform, called the Service Provider Cloud. The Service Provider Cloud is used to register, manage, and communicate with devices in the network. This server-side software uses the wide-area wireless link via a Neul basestation to communicate with the terminal, allowing a user with internet access to make full use of the remote device. The user interface (web GUI) has been designed to allow the user to make full use of the capabilities of the remote terminal without the need for deep understanding of the embedded system.

Argon produced and agreed storyboards for the user interface functionality, which was then implemented using Node.js as a framework. We developed the Service Provider Cloud application as the cloud service for the Developer Kit – it is also intended as an example for service providers of the kind of cloud service they could implement on the Neul network. The server software includes RabbitMQ message broker software and a MariaDB database. It supports a range of user interactions including a browser interface, email and Xively.


(Click screenshots for fullsize image)


Development PCB

The Development PCB for the Development Kit was designed to support stand-alone battery operation with a comprehensive range of input and output functions and provision to attach external circuitry to allow almost unlimited connectivity options, based around the NT1001 module which had been designed by Neul. The module is mounted on a PCB which provides I/O connectivity and power supply electronics.Argon proposed the system arrangement, prepared the schematic diagram and reviewed the board layout. As well as acting as the hardware platform for the Development Kit, the PCB design is also intended to serve as a reference design for future terminal products. The power supply is particularly demanding, since the unit is designed to allow for battery operation with a battery life of 10 years. It must remain efficient when handling the relatively high currents required for wireless transmission, and yet have a very low current drain when the unit is passive.

Example Applications

Argon developed a number of example applications as a resource for module developers. These enable developers to rapidly get an end-to-end system up and running with basic functionality providing a solid platform for custom module developments.

Development Kit Package

The kit was to be sold as a Neul branded boxed item containing everything that was required to get the system up and running.

Argon managed the design and procurement of the packaging, in collaboration with Neul, and produced the user documentation (User Manual and Quick Start Guide).

The customer support platform was built using the cloud-based support system Zendesk which was customised to give the required functionality and branding.

The Outcome

The Development Kit provides a complete solution in a box for rapid development of a huge range of Internet of Things solutions.

Our team delivered a project which successfully integrated electronic design, embedded software, server and web-page development, along with the logistics of packaging, documentation and support. The Development Kit provides a flexible and capable platform as it stands, but it is also a solid framework for ongoing development both at hardware and software level – for example the profiles framework for handling different terminal device types can be expanded to meet as yet unforeseen needs, and the Development PCB provides a reference for the design of custom terminals in the future. On the server side, the Service Provider Cloud shows how user-facing software can be implemented in aInternet of Things system.

The Development Kit has already played a part in building a city-wide open access Internet of Things system based on Neul’s technology in Milton Keynes in the UK.

Argon not only provided extra technical resource to accelerate the availability of the Development Kit but our broad project experience enabled us to act as a customer advocate, working interactively with the client team to develop a robust architecture for the overall system.

The project was a step on the way to broad adoption of Neul’s solution, but it was also a high quality fully-formed customer product, with professional presentation and comprehensive support. With an experienced multi-skilled team and collaborative approach, Argon was ideally placed to successfully deliver this exciting contribution to the increasingly important world of the Internet of Things.

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