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IoT and edge devices

IoT is not a thing of the future – it is now.

The reduction in cost and physical size coupled with an exponential increase in processing power has resulted in devices that can measure and communicate at a very low price point. Devices can now be installed on lower value assets simply because the commercial considerations now make sense. Our focus as an automation group was to look at providing products to meet this growing demand. We embarked on a journey by looking at the various communications technologies available and selecting a suitable technology that would provide international coverage without changing service providers, be cost effective and reliable. We settled on Thingstream (I will cover this in more detail in a later article).

What is an EDGE DEVICE

Let me take a step back and explain what an edge device is. Edge is defined as “the outside limit of an object, area, or surface” . if we define the edge as the outside limit of the “digital world”  then the device that links or interfaces the digital world to the real world is an Edge Device. In the real world we have analog or infinitely changing variables that require conversion before representation the digital world. A device that converts a physical change into a digital change is called a transducer. An example is temperature measurement. There are a number of methods used where each method meets a set of criteria dependent on the application – some examples are price/accuracy/application. For measuring room temperature to control an air-conditioning unit, we require a cheap/low accuracy/operating range from 0 to 40 degrees device. The technology that achieves this is a thermistor or temperature dependent resistor. This is matched to some electronics and through an analog to digital converter a digital representation of the temperature is available in the digital world. This principal of conversion using a transducer is what an edge device does. In other words every real world parameter we want to measure requires an edge device and a transducer. Fast forward to looking for Edge Devices to add to the i4 Group product stack.

Hunting on the Edge

We searched and tested a number of devices, found a lot of vaporware and many devices tested did not meet the published specifications. In fact we did not find a single edge device we could take to market as the basis of a configurable edge device that could be deployed across a number of market verticals. We held a company indaba (Zulu word for conference or consultation) to explore using our group embedded research and development skills to design our own IoT edge device. The engineering skills required to design transducer based solutions in eZiControl – our embedded R&D plus electronic manufacturing facility – was enhanced by recruiting engineering skills in digital communications and dash boarding/web development. 2 years on and we now have a separate business unit “Digital Twin” building out our IoT edge offering. The pace of development has stretched our resources leading to the addition of a few more engineers – the team has achieved remarkable results with the launch of a range of IoT edge devices – Richard Creighton decided to use bird names to add character to each model.

Digital Twin – Tiered approach

We now have an ever growing product stack with a complete offering from the T1 edge device hardware to T2 communications layer to T3 dash boarding and T4 data mining or artificial intelligence. To simplify explanation we have created tiers that when placed on top of each other provide an end to end solution. This tiered approach allows our customers to match hardware and service to suit their business model. As an example if you only need a hardware edge device and will provide your own communications layer then purchase our Tier1 or T1 edge devices. If you need the hardware and communications layer then purchase our edge device with T2 communications service. If you have in house MQTT and dashboarding skills then you will not require our T3 services – if you do not then you have access to our dashboard that support multi tenancy allowing you to sell the dashboard services on to your client.

Our hardware

Our first product was the Pigeon – a configurable IoT edge device with 4 analog inputs to measure whatever you require – from temperature to pressure to humidity or any other variable you require. Simply match a 0-10v transducer and connect it. 4 digital outputs allows controlling of 4 loads – these can be lights, pump motors, gates motors. A configurable RS485 Modbus port provides connection to any modbus device at any communication speed and setting. We have examples using generator deep sea controllers, inverters for cell phone towers, chillers in HVAC applications, temperature logging in AHU’s, energy meters in residential and billing applications. A truly universal device that is our common (hence the name pigeon) or go to piece of hardware.

This  was followed by the Penguin for cooler applications – the device used in the AB Inbev pilot project. An enhanced version with compressor and door monitoring called the Emperor Penguin followed. Pilot projects exploring use cases in banking, bio metrics, pharmaceuticals, yellow metal tracking and condition monitoring, goods tracking across Africa and many more applications has resulted in the addition of a few more “birds”.