The Internet of Things (IoT) is fueling the imaginations of a diverse mix of creatives, from professional OEM teams and independent engineers to app developers and makers.
By Amir Sherman, Technology Marketing Director Embedded, Arrow Electronics.
Against a fast moving backdrop, all developers need to jump-start their projects, avoid becoming trapped in hardware or software design minutiae, and quickly start bringing to life their ideas at the application level.
A popular response is to use one of the large variety of community computing boards that are currently available, such as a Raspberry Pi, Beagle board, or Arduino. These have become popular prototyping platforms, although not originally conceived for the role. While they may provide an adequate basis for development, there can be problems later in the project. A board like the Raspberry Pi was never intended to be used in high-volume products: it does not support industrial temperature ranges (-40 to +85°C), is not tested for mass production, does not have the best processor for power-constrained applications, and is not designed with parts that are easily available on the open market.
IoT-centric and easy to use
The 96Boards initiative shows how the limitations imposed by platforms requisitioned in IoT projects for which they were not designed can be overcome, to deliver the flexibility developers need to realise their new product ideas in the way they want. The boards are based on ARM Cortex-A microprocessors or Cortex-R/M microcontrollers, which can be ordered directly from the manufacturer or a distributor. Moreover, developers can leverage their familiarity with these industry-standard 32-bit and 64-bit cores, as well as their existing code base. In addition, standard form factors simplify designing them into the end product if required. 96Boards specifications cover three categories of boards, comprising the Consumer Edition (CE) specification for mobile, embedded and digital-home, Enterprise Edition (EE) for networking and server development, and the IoT Edition (IE) for IoT opportunities.
Among these, the CE platform is a low cost platform, suitable for running standard Linux-based operating systems such as Android or open-source distributions that are popular with maker communities. The specification defines a compact card-type form factor measuring 85x54x12mm (and extended version 85x100x12mm), and minimum hardware requirements including 0.5GB RAM, a MicroSDHC socket for up to 64GB Flash storage, WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 LE, USB Host and Device support, common PC media interfaces like HDMI, and 40-way and 60-way headers for connecting add-ons and mezzanine cards. Any 32-bit or 64-bit Cortex-A SoC may be used. 96Boards members can certify their board designs in accordance with this specification. The boards can then be made available to developers, off-the-shelf and ready-to-use as an embedded platform.
As a proactive 96Boards member, Arrow has introduced several boards that meet the specifications and are chosen by engineers seeking a turnkey platform for IoT projects.
The Meerkat board is based on the 96Boards CE specification, and delivers high performance through its NXP i.MX7 applications processor, which features dual 1.2GHz ARM Cortex-A7 cores. Rich in connectivity, it features WLAN 802.11 b/g/n 2.4GHz, Bluetooth 4.1, USB 2.0 OTG, USB 2.0 HOST, CAN, 2L-MIPI DSI and 2L-MIPI CSI interfaces. There are also I2C, UART, SPI, and I2S interfaces, as well as user-assignable GPIOs. Meerkat can be made Arduino-compatible using an add-on mezzanine board, and the board is supplied ready-to-run Debian Linux.
Chameleon96 is an FPGA-based board that meets all 96Boards mandatory specifications (excluding MIPI SDI Interface) and most optional specifications. The Intel Cyclone V SoC FPGA with integrated dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 core delivers advanced processing power, and the board also packs WLAN, Bluetooth, and USB within its credit-card-size outline. A 1080p/60fps HDMI interface is also on-board, and there is also a 2-lane MIPI-CSI interface. The FPGA fabric allows users to build custom, high-performance graphics or video-processing engines, and the board ships with 512MB of 400MHz DDR3 SDRAM. It can support up to 1GB of RAM, and a SD 3.0 (UHS-I) interface is also provided. Chameleon96 supports Linux at launch.
A third board, recently added to the Arrow portfolio, is Oxalis, a 96Boards EE (Enterprise Edition) carrier board for space-constrained networking and IoT applications. It features the NXP QorIQ LS1012A network processor, which has a single 800MHz ARM Cortex-A53 core. This device has the same Trust Architecture and software compatibility of high-end QorIQ LS devices, and features a packet-forwarding engine and high-speed interfaces to deliver line-rate networking performance within the 96Boards EE footprint. The 1W typical power dissipation makes it suitable for battery-backed or USB-powered equipment, and the board comes with 64MB QSPI Flash and 1GB DDR3L. Among other peripherals there are two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a SATA port, two USB 3.0 SuperSpeed interfaces, and support for mPCIe and PoE.
Extra choices for IoT developers
Of course, there are limitless opportunities for creating IoT devices, and developers can never have too many choices when it comes to finding hardware to get their projects up and running. Arrow started its independent SmartEverything boards initiative to deliver innovative boards into this exciting and varied scene. They are based on the Arduino form factor and incorporate a variety of I/O interfaces and sensors together with wireless connectivity.
Among them, the new SmartEverything Panther helps developers quickly add pattern-recognition capabilities to their products and link them to the cloud for monitoring and control purposes. Giving developers easy access to Intel pattern-matching technology, SmartEverything Panther comprises a base board containing the Intel Quark SE C1000 MCU sensing engine and a companion shield that contains MEMS motion and environmental sensors from leading suppliers. These enable the system to recognise gestures, sound and vibration patterns. Microchip WiFi and crypto-security handle the interface to the Cloud, while interface setting and firmware upgrade are done through the on-board Bluetooth LE module.
On the other hand, for developers who need production readiness with the flexibility to configure their own processing engine, the Arrow Max1000 FPGA IoT board can be installed directly into a custom application or integrated onto a separate board. It contains an Intel MAX10 FPGA with 8000 logic elements, DSP blocks, and support for Intel’s NIOS II soft embedded processor, as well as on-chip Flash, embedded SRAM, and a high-speed 12-bit ADC. Additional motion sensors and DRAM are provided on-board. With the integrated USB-Blaster, which enables direct programming of the FPGA from a PC and debugging using Intel Quartus Prime Lite, the board is an easy-to-use plug-and-play solution.
Conclusion: enablement catches up with conception
Embedded developers have been using evaluation kits for many years to overcome tricky hardware design and software integration challenges, and focus on the new or unique parts of their projects. As the IoT development scene continues to mature and grow, new boards and kits are emerging that are aligned with the specific needs of IoT devices: compact, power efficient, and ready to use directly in the end product if needed, they are effective for developing a wide range of functionalities, from basic connectivity, to high performance digital processing or custom FPGA development.