Building your own IoT Product: Bad radio! (Wi-Fi, Wireless / LTE, BLE, NFC) – Oh, my!
Geoffrey Parker | February 6, 2015 | 4 Min Read
Picking the right radio solution can make or break your product (or seriously cripple customer adoption). You have to build or select components that make sense for your context of use and build solutions around the trade-offs of each radio option.
We recently published a paper about the “The Seven Sins (umm… Challenges) of Building your own Internet of Things Product,” which was a primer to some deep issues that organizations will have to face and conquer in order to get their feet wet in the IoT ocean.
In my previous blog post, “Building your own IoT Product: Is your IT team ready?” we covered three critical steps within your own organization regarding your IT capabilities. With this latest blog, we will cover how the selection of a radio device for your IoT product highlights the need for help from industrial design and software consultancies who can walk you through everything from off-the-shelf component selection to a full custom design.
The first thing to consider is the context of use. So, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the device need to function with other devices?
- Does the device rely on its internet connection to provide basic functionality?
- Does the device need to be portable and move about with you?
- Will the device have a power connection or rely on batteries?
These questions will unmask how the devices will be further limited and used. For example, if your device does need to be fully portable, you have two options:
- Wireless connection via a wireless telco (e.g. SIM card-connected device similar to a mobile phone)
- Bluetooth-paired device
The Bluetooth pairing forces the devices to be used with a companion app and potentially causes a faster drain on accompanying smart phone’s battery depending on how often Bluetooth is used to create connections to the internet. This could add to user frustration. Also, full portability means batteries. Built-in batteries can be expensive and replaceable batteries introduce other tradeoffs in your industrial and electrical design (e.g. waterproofness and size considerations).
Good news! There are other options, especially in the event that your device is stationary or doesn’t change Wi-Fi networks frequently and relies on the Internet for some functionality. Components like the Electric Imp (www.electricimp.com) can be extremely cost-effective and offload significant technical challenges and hurdles. An advantage of a pre-built component is that is already FCC and CSA approved devices. This just helps get your product to market faster and provides you with a higher degree of confidence during your safety certification process. Another advantage of a device like the Electric Imp is that you can deploy updates from their cloud portal. Firmware and field-deployed updates are a real pain. Excuse my language, but I don’t think I can say it any other way. Being able to update the software running on your devices is not trivial, but the Electric Imp also has its trade-offs. For example, it is limited to a single wireless connection and relies on an SDK that currently only works with iOS and Android devices.
Other options in the “radio” side of things are all the Maker Community approaches with Arduino backpacks. Even a newcomer Pinocc.io (https://pinocc.io/) has some novel device-to-device connectivity with a Wi-Fi-provisioned hub (a.k.a. lead scouts). So, instead of flooding a Wi-Fi network with devices, Pinocc.io boards communicate in a mesh RF network that doesn’t interfere with Wi-Fi. These are all ways of using off-the-shelf components to solve your context of use. Trade-offs of these devices are cost and mass production. They are usually overkill for simple IoT devices and can significantly increase your production costs. It’s about finding a balance.
Finally, custom Bluetooth electronic devices and some ingenuity can work out the same as off-the-shelf components like Pinocc.io boards. For example, you can set up a mesh BT network with centralized hubs that are within a Wi-Fi / cellular network. Other novel approaches are RF bands approved for home wireless phones (900MHz and 2.4GHz bands) that have huge ranges. Piggybacking on these noisy bands can provide you with a custom, but capable radio coverage. Yet again, there is a trade-off. BLE and NFC chips are still quite expensive and will increase production costs. You will need to weigh these costs against your final price point and work backwards.
You can always custom manufacture your electronics. It’s likely you will need to do some circuit board design. All radios that are inside devices require FCC approval before being sold in North America. This process takes time. Your industrial design partner should be able to guide you through the emissions certification process. If they can’t, let me know. (I can point you to a great firm.) Keep in mind that failing your emissions/safety step can be a “back to square one” step. And, you’ll need your software team to work hand in hand with your industrial and electrical teams.
Confused and a bit scared? You should be. Picking the right radio solution can make or break your product (or seriously cripple customer adoption). You have to build or select components that make sense for your context of use and build solutions around the trade-offs of each radio option.
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