Mind / Iron
by Bryan Bergeron, Editor ;
The Internet of Things
The promise of intelligent objects — from shoes that tell you not only how
many calories you’ve burned but when it’s time for a new pair, to sensor
networks in your lawn that tell your sprinkler system exactly when and where to
direct water — has been slow in coming. However, it seems like we’re finally
there, in the form of the Io T, or the Internet of Things.
As a robotics enthusiast, you’re probably intimately familiar with the three
main elements of the Io T: sensors, embedded processors, and communications
links. Two additional elements — rarely identified directly but understood — are
affordability and miniature form factor. Clunky, expensive hardware just doesn’t
cut it when it comes to developing practical Io T systems.
Although bleeding edge micro-Io T is in the hands of the military and deep-pocketed corporate R&D shops, you can explore and contribute to the
technology because of a tsunami of affordable microcontrollers, miniature
power circuits, and MEMS sensors. For example, I’m working on an Io T pill
dispenser that tracks when, where, and how many pills are taken. The MEMS
sensors are so small that I’m using sensors pre-mounted on breakout boards for
the prototypes. When I’m happy with the functionality, I’ll mount the devices
directly onto a miniature PCB of my design.
Power density is another factor. I’ve found the tiny LiPo battery packs sold
for R/C helicopters and airplanes work well, as long as there is some means to
easily and rapidly charge the battery. Scavenging energy from the environment
— whether through solar radiation, Wi-Fi and cellular radio signals, body motion,
or vibration — is still problematic. The most reliable environmental power source
— the sun — isn’t available 24/7.
Powerful, compact, affordable microcontrollers and microprocessors are
leading the charge into Io T. Take the Raspberry Pi. For about $30, you get an
Internet-ready Linux computer that fits on virtually any robotic platform. For the
same price, you can pick up a postage stamp-sized Arduino or Propeller board.
I’ve had good experience with the ATMEGA 328-based Femtoduinos that has
the same pinout layout (albeit on a smaller scale) as the Arduino Uno. The
problem is the board doesn’t have built-in communications.
On the communications front, the established player is the XBee module.
While it’s hard to beat for simplicity of setup — especially for a mesh or other
network — it’s getting long in the tooth in terms of footprint. There are cheaper,
smaller alternatives for point-to-point communications. For example, I’ve had
good results with the RFM12B-S2 wireless transceiver. The unit (available
through SparkFun for $7) operates in the 434 MHz band. You’ll need to provide
one unit with a connection to the Internet
If you’re using processing and Arduinos, one of the easiest means of
getting your system on the Internet is to us an Arduino Wi-Fi shield. If the $80
price tag is too steep for you, then wired Ethernet shields are another option.
The merits of wired versus wireless connectivity to the Internet depends on the
nature of the things you have on the Internet, as well as your budget.
If you think about it, it’s now possible to create just about any intelligent
object you can imagine, or that you’ve heard about. Take the smart refrigerator.
It’s no big deal as long as the three elements are available. And, of course, car
manufacturers are having a field day with Io T. The DoD is experimenting with
smart logistical systems that automatically track assets in real time. I’m sure that
someone, somewhere is looking to replace the smartphone with some kind of
Io T device that’s more or less permanently associated with the body. I’m not
ready to become an Io T device, but I suppose it’s inevitable. SV
6 SERVO 05.2013
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