2014 Outlook on Machine to Machine (M2M) Communications and the Internet of Things (IoT)

Daniel Cooley

Embedded systems are today’s main markets for M2M products

Embedded systems have experienced significant growth over the past decade in markets such as telecommunications, industrial, security and consumer electronics as developers add more intelligence and connectivity to devices and systems. The embedded market growth of the past few years may well be dwarfed by what will come with the build out of the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT market is surging, and industry leaders predict that the number of connected devices will exceed 15 billion nodes by 2015. By 2020, there could be 50 billion connected devices. According to the GSM Alliance, about a quarter of these devices will be mobile handsets and personal computers. The rest will be autonomous connected devices that will communicate with other machines without user interaction, e.g. machine-to-machine communications (M2M).

M2M communication is on the rise, enabling connected devices to exchange and act upon information autonomously without a person ever being involved. M2M technology is opening up new markets, enabling connected devices in our homes, offices and factories to communicate with each other to provide great comfort, convenience and security. Smart metering is a prime example of an M2M application. Rather than simply measuring power consumption, smart meters enable utility companies to communicate in near real time with consumers or through opt-in programs and proactively optimize the operation of heavy load appliances, such as air conditioners, during peak-demand times. The result is lower electricity bills for consumers and a shift of loading so that utility companies do not need to invest in new power generation sources to support the few days in a year when grid supply is challenged by demand.

Connected home networks also leverage M2M technology to enable security monitoring, lighting control and in-home energy management applications. The availability of even a few sensors – temperature, humidity, motion, light, glass breakage – enables a powerful mesh network that extends the capabilities of all devices autonomously connected to the IoT.

The rapid growth of M2M connectivity applications offers semiconductor companies like Silicon Labs an opportunity to help shape the future of the IoT market by driving standards and developing a broad range of silicon solutions for M2M applications.

Appropriate technology and relevant standards are vital for IoT success

A key enabler for M2M connectivity is the emergence of low-power wireless sensors used in applications ranging from smart meters to security systems to building and factory automation. Device properties such as scalability, wireless range, ultra-low power consumption and long-term reliability are critically important for wireless sensor networking applications.

Consider the need for scalability. An individual sensor may not provide status updates more than once a second and only transmit a few bytes of information each time, but even a single building can have tens of thousands of nodes. A compelling example is the Aria Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada (USA), which has deployed more than 70,000 nodes that communicate using a ZigBee mesh network to control lights, air conditioning and many other services around the building. In many cases, sensors may be required in locations where connection to mains electricity is impractical and battery-powered operation is the only option. The requirement is for a robust network architecture that supports the ability to handle large amounts of aggregated data but does not place prohibitive energy demands on the sensor nodes themselves.

The combination of reliability, scalability and power efficiency places stringent demands on the communications technology that wireless sensor nodes can adopt. System integrators must not only consider the benefits and weaknesses of the chosen topologies and wireless protocols but also the underlying physical properties of the radio technology itself. Concrete walls and multi-path fading are unfriendly obstacles for wireless systems, but there are ways to mitigate their impact. To add to the challenge, different countries have their own rules governing radio spectrum and which frequencies can be used.

In the world of M2M connectivity, there are no “one-size-fits-all” wireless solutions. For example, sub-GHz and ZigBee wireless networks operate on different parts of the radio spectrum and may be selected for a given application based on their unique attributes. In a campus environment, 2.4 GHz ZigBee is best suited for in-building automation systems while sub-GHz RF may be ideal for outdoor lighting and access control. Other options for wireless connectivity include Wi-Fi, which is well suited for transporting large amounts of data, and Bluetooth, which is optimized for point-to-point communications between portable devices. Each wireless technology has its own set of strengths and limitations, and in the emerging world of M2M connectivity, these wireless technologies will co-exist.

ZigBee – an open, global standards-based wireless mesh technology – shares the same 2.4 GHz radio spectrum as Bluetooth and Wi-Fi but was designed to address the unique needs of low-power wireless sensor nodes in a mesh configuration. Unlike conventional networking architectures such as star and point-to-point, mesh networks are capable of providing robust coverage for every location within a building at the lowest cost per node. Wireless sensor networks based on ZigBee, for example, provide self-configuring and self-healing mesh connectivity that can be extended to interconnect hundreds or potentially thousands of devices on a single network.

Semiconductor suppliers must respond to the M2M / IoT challenge

While hardware provides the foundation for connectivity, software enables the underlying M2M interactions for the IoT to ensure that connected devices operate reliably regardless of the operating environment. In addition to providing ultra-low-power, low-cost silicon solutions to support M2M applications, semiconductor suppliers also must combine the right mix of hardware and software into comprehensive, standards-based platforms that are easy to deploy. Although hardware design issues often can be addressed through software, it is better in the long run to begin with the optimal hardware platform (optimal performance, lowest power, highest integration, etc.) and then chose the software tools and stacks that best meet the application requirements.

With software’s central role in M2M applications, interoperability and open standards have become equally important, enabling a multitude of devices to interact seamlessly. For example, the ZigBee standard pioneered by the global ZigBee Alliance provides connected device manufacturers with a straightforward way to develop products capable of M2M communications. ZigBee standard profiles, such as ZigBee Smart Energy, ZigBee Home Automation, ZigBee Building Automation and ZigBee Light Link, provide interoperable platforms to simplify the development of IoT applications for smart homes and commercial buildings, intelligent lighting control, smart meters and in-home energy monitoring systems.

To help engineers bring their M2M/IoT devices to market faster, semiconductor suppliers also must offer software development tools that make it easy for developers to implement the various elements of an embedded wireless system. In particular, adding wireless connectivity to embedded applications can be a complex and time-consuming process, especially for products that originally did not include wireless connectivity.

Silicon Labs’ view of future trends in the M2M and IoT market

Wireless sensor networks for the M2M market were slow to take off historically due to barriers created by the need for ultra-low power, exceptional reliability and very low-cost components, as well as the lack of widely adopted standards. Today, we’re at an inflection point as silicon providers like Silicon Labs have delivered cost-effective, energy-friendly devices in small footprints that can be connected reliably in self-healing networks based on well-established wireless networking standards. While there is still work to be done to connect all of the players in the ecosystem and fully realize the potential of M2M connectivity, the major technical hurdles are behind us.

This year and for years to come, the IoT will be a significant driver of connected intelligent devices, big data, higher bandwidth and expanded services. We are seeing the first waves of M2M and IoT implementation in diverse pockets of innovation – in our homes, offices, factories, warehouses and hospitals, and in metro infrastructure, transportation and agriculture.

Today there are Internet-connected smart phones, PCs, tablets, TVs, set-top boxes, gaming consoles, home appliances, security systems, smart meters, personal medical devices, vending machines and more. New generations of M2M connected devices for the IoT will enable people everywhere to remotely control and monitor the energy consumption in their homes and to remotely manage their lighting and security systems, among many other quality-of-life activities. In coming waves of IoT development, we’ll see the aggregation of connected devices into truly smart homes, smart factories, smart grids and ultimately smart cities.

Daniel Cooley
Director of Marketing, MCU Products, Silicon Labs

Read more about Silicon Labs’ IoT solutions here.

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