The top 6 challenges facing IoT – and how we are overcoming them

TI AvatarSmart homes. Connected cars. Intelligent factories. At the heart of all of these clever technologies is an interconnected network of devices known as the Internet of Things (IoT).

The IoT is headed for a tipping point. By some estimates, there will be 50 billion ‘things’ communicating with each other or the Internet by 2020. So a challenge lies before us: How do we make the IoT easy to use, cost effective and efficient?

We asked some of our leading IoT experts to tell us how these challenges will be overcome, with a particular focus on consumer, industrial and automotive IoT:

1. Low power is paramount

For the IoT to evolve from a niche market to a pervasive network that connects virtually every aspect of our lives, power consumption is vital. Many of the connected devices within the IoT are nodes containing microcontrollers (MCUs), sensors, wireless devices and actuators that collect data. In many cases, these nodes will be battery operated or have no batteries at all, gathering power through energy harvesting. Particularly in industrial settings, these nodes will be placed in hard-to-access or no-access areas. This means they must be able to operate and transmit data for years at a time on a single, coin-cell battery.

“Installation, maintenance and repair of batteries is difficult and costly – and on some factory floors, it can even be dangerous,” said Harsha, who focuses on wireless and low-power charging. “Our goal is for our customers to never have to replace a battery for the lifetime of a device.”

Harsha and his team are exploring ways to make tiny batteries last as long as the products they are powering:

  • Solar power – Whether it is indoor or outdoor light, harvesting even a little bit of energy from light sources can make a large impact.
  • Temperature difference – Energy can be harvested from the difference in ambient temperature between the inside and outside of an object in a factory, like a pipe carrying hot liquids, compared to the external air temperature.
  • Vibration – In an industrial setting, energy harvesting takes place using the vibration of machines on a factory floor.
  • Radio Frequency (RF) – Using the radio waves from the Wi-Fi® in your home, for example, can create a small charge for batteries in IoT nodes.

“The goal is to extend battery life by 10 or 20 percent. While consumer electronics tend to be replaced at a faster pace, IoT technology in industrial applications lasts much longer. By using energy harvesting to extend battery life, a battery could last 20 to 30 years until the entire node needs to be replaced. And in some cases, energy harvesting could be used so the node could even go battery-less,” Harsha said.

2. Sensing is essential

Without sensing, there would be no IoT. The entire IoT system starts with sensors, the tiny devices or nodes measuring anything and everything to create data that is sent to other nodes or to the cloud. Whether sensing that a door is open at your house, that your car’s oil needs to be changed or that a piece of equipment is about to fail on an assembly line, sensors gather crucial information.

“Sensing comes into play when a decision needs to be made, and there might not necessarily be a person involved,” said Jason, who specializes in current sensing. “If something is coming down a conveyor belt, a sensor can help determine what the object is, how much it weighs, whether the conveyer belt system is getting hot, etc. For example, analyzing the current in a motor can tell you the health of the motor and if there are any faults. These are all the things you need to know for control in a factory, and sensors make it possible. When you provide the data on a real-time basis, it adds up to a lot of important data impacting everything.”

Because there is so much data collected by sensors, particularly in the Industrial IoT (IIoT), Jason sees the need for innovations in sensor software as much as in hardware.

“When you get so much information, at what point is the information too much or not relevant? A missing piece to determine this are algorithms. Once those algorithms are in place and can be leveraged heavily across factories, they will change manufacturing. The manufacturing footprint – the amount of space it will take to create something – can shrink. Factories can get smaller and more efficient,” he said.

3. Connectivity options: Simplifying the complex is critical

Once the sensor data is collected by low-powered nodes, it must be sent somewhere. In most cases, it goes to a gateway, which is a midpoint between the Internet/cloud or other nodes in an IoT system.

Today, there are multiple wired and wireless options to connect devices with unique use cases and different needs. Each of the 14 different connectivity standards and technologies serve valuable purposes, but being able to take on all of those standards from Wi-Fi to Bluetooth® to Sub-1 GHz to Ethernet is a huge undertaking.

“Because of the variety of products and necessity to add connectivity to many different products, most of which did not have Internet connectivity before, there is a need to take complex technology and make it easier. That’s a big part of what we are doing today,” said Gil, director of strategic marketing for IoT.

4. Managing cloud connectivity is key

Once the data passes through a gateway, in most cases it heads straight to the cloud where that data can be analyzed, reviewed and put into action. The value of IoT comes from data running on cloud services. Just like with connectivity, there are lots of cloud service options – yet another point of complexity in the IoT world.

“There is a wide variety and diverse number of cloud providers, and there are no standards for how devices connect and are managed on the cloud,” Gil said. “To address the need for customers using multiple cloud services, we have developed the largest IoT cloud ecosystem with more than 20 cloud providers with integrated TI technology solutions.”

Gil believes IoT adoption is taking place at a much faster pace because cloud technology is available at a cost-effective price. But more work is needed to simplify the complex for further IoT growth.

5. Security is crucial for widespread adoption

Gil sees security of the entire system as the biggest barrier to widespread adoption of the IoT. With more devices becoming ‘smart,’ it will enable more potential security breach entry points. Our teams are looking at ways to build the most advanced hardware security mechanisms while keeping them small, low cost and low power. On top of that, we are investing heavily in integrated security protocols and security software to make security implementation as simple as possible for customers.

“We are reducing the barrier for adding advanced security capabilities to IoT products,” Gil said.

6. IoT needs to be made easy for inexperienced developers

At first, IoT technology was predominantly used by technology companies. But today – and even more so in the future – the IoT will be included in industries with limited technological background.

For example, take a faucet manufacturing company. Until now, electrical engineers may never have worked at a faucet manufacturing company because there was no need. But if the company wanted to make Internet-connected shower heads, the investment in manpower and time would be significant. Thus, IoT technologies must be easy to add to existing and future customer products without the need to have network and security engineers on staff.

“These companies don’t need to do the level of investment of an Internet technology company to learn the technology, because now they can get the technology ready for them from companies like TI,” Gil said.

While more and more aspects of our lives are being connected, and as the IoT continues to proliferate, a lot more work must be done. For TIers like Gil, it is hard work that is well worth the time and effort in the end.

“It’s about the massive outlook for improving our lives – from all angles. This includes consumer convenience and lifestyle in our homes and cars and efficient factories that will ultimately make the world a better place,” he said.

To learn more about our efforts in IoT, click here.