The road to product creation for the internet of things is paved with smart boards. In recent years, the use of readily available, economical development platforms for IoT product design has enriched the market as developers have leveraged the communications features of various systems and protocols.

Smart boards — whether microcontroller- or SoC-based boards or single-board computers — enable cost-effective prototyping and are a fundamental step in the development of interconnected objects. The market segment for IoT development boards is populated both by electronics giants and by startups, some of which are financed through crowdfunding initiatives. IoT development activity is converging around a series of dominant technologies.

The IoT Universe

Connecting to the internet of things has become a commonplace aspect of daily life in the personal, professional, and public realms. IoT is everywhere, enabled by increasingly complex systems that must be controlled. This intricate ecosystem of connected objects offers companies the opportunity to pursue applications, products, and services that differentiate them from competitors. As a result, the pace of IoT innovation is accelerating. Harnessing the combined capabilities of sensors, communication protocols, and machine-learning algorithms puts IoT at the forefront of development challenges. For companies in a range of sectors, the ability to access readily available hardware and software resources is critical to successful development and prototyping.

Smart Boards

The Aconno ACD52832 IoT development board is a comprehensive solution. While designed for ultra-low–power use cases, it delivers sufficient performance with a 32-bit Arm Cortex-M4F running at 64 MHz. The board is equipped with a wide range of sensors, such as light, temperature, sound, movement, and vibration detectors, to serve IoT ecosystem requirements. It also features several LEDs, buttons, relays, a buzzer, servo connectors, an NFC adapter, and more. The core of the development board is the ACN52832 Bluetooth smart module, powered by a Nordic Semiconductor system-on-chip based on the Arm Cortex-M4F.

Following the ultra-low–power logic, the development board is equipped with an e-paper display. E-paper requires virtually zero energy consumption to display a projected image. Thanks to its minimal energy requirements, the 200 × 200 resolution display with a 184-dpi pixel density is easily readable in sunlight, with unlimited viewing angles.

These types of displays are the best choice for many industrial and consumer applications. “E-paper is very important because it’s ultra-low–power,” said Thomas Hollwedel, marketing and sales leader at Aconno. “For us, an IoT development board means that it works battery-powered for a long time while delivering decent performance. That’s why the GoodDisplay GDEP015OC1 e-paper display [was our] choice and not an LCD or OLED display.”

ACD52832

Figure 1: ACD52832 IoT development board. All sensors are shown. (Image: Aconno)

Developers working with the ACD52832 smart board can use mbed or Keil uvision software tools to create prototypes quickly, flexibly, and economically. The board can ease the transition from prototype to mass production based on the Aconno family of products. Figure 1 shows the board with its complement of sensors, including the STMicroelectronics iNEMO 9-degrees-of-freedom (9-DoF) inertial module (with an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer) and the Microchip MCP9700 temperature sensor.

The core of the board is Nordic’s nRF52 SoC, whose unique software architecture offers a clear separation between the application code and protocols called SoftDevices. It is built around an Arm Cortex-M4 CPU with 64-MHz floating-point units and has an NFC-A near-field communications tag for use in simplified pairing and payment solutions.

The latest Aconno innovation using Bluetooth is the ACD52840 board, which has a Bluetooth 5 (BT5)-enabled ACN52840 module to support long-range operation at very low power. Long-range free-field operation using the module has been measured at more than 1,300 meters, according to Aconno. The ACN52840 module is based on Nordic’s nRF52840 SoC, with an Arm Cortex-M4F CPU and Arm TrustZone CryptoCell. It supports Adaptive Network Topology (ANT), Thread, Thread Mesh, and Zigbee, ensuring long battery life. The new board comes with most of the sensor capabilities of the ACD52832 and provides an e-paper display, NFC, and other features to enable IoT product development (Figure 2).

ACD52840

Figure 2: ACD52840 IoT development board (Image: Aconno)

The Bluetooth 5 standard increases the wireless range, speed, and bandwidth to allow broadcasting to two wireless devices at once. Users gain mobility because data is shared between devices as they move from the home to the car, for example.

The Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), which includes major brands of industrial electronics worldwide, predicts that more than a third of all IoT devices will use the Bluetooth 5 standard within the next few years.

“The new module and the new board can send with +8 dB, and it also has the hardware support for Bluetooth 5 long range. So, a key advantage is distance,” Hollwedel said. “With the 52832 module, we achieved an outside distance between two modules in connected mode of 130 meters. With the 52840 module, we achieved an outside range of 1.3 kilometers. We just measured that again while in Croatia because there’s a lot of land where you can really walk straight for kilometers and measure, and that’s an amazing distance for Bluetooth.”

Trying to build an IoT-connected system from scratch can be a daunting task. It can be expensive and requires time and expertise in many engineering disciplines. The use of development kits based on microcontrollers or SoCs can address many of the sensorial and other engineering challenges.

Boards and solutions from Aconno and others, such as Sony and Cypress, join the likes of Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and Beagle Bone to speed time to market for IoT introductions. The challenges of IoT development will be addressed beyond the hardware, with software tools available to easily program the various sensors.

Many of us have traditionally viewed Arduino and Raspberry Pi as separate entities. Though the two boards present different characteristics with different uses in some situations, they can be managed from a single platform. Raspberry Pi is a mini-computer; Arduino needs a PC to be programmed.

Sony has entered the IoT market with its Spresense Main Board, a very compact development board based on the Sony CXD5602 multicore microcontroller. Its most significant potential is to allow the development of IoT applications in a very simple and fast way, including the ability to use the Arduino or Eclipse integrated development environments (IDEs). The Spresense board includes the Sony CXD5247GF and CXD5602GG processors, a GPS antenna, a graphical user interface, and an extension for 26 external pins. External add-ons will be available from third parties for Bluetooth (BLE), Wi-Fi, and image sensors (Figure 3).

Spresense Main Board

Figure 3: The Spresense Main Board (Image: Sony)

The PSoC 6 BLE Pioneer Kit (CY8CKIT-062-BLE) from Cypress offers a hardware-based working environment that requires no external memory. It supports secure data storage and cryptographic algorithms. The kit includes Bluetooth 5, a 512-Mbit Quad-SPI NOR flash, and a power delivery USB Type-C controller.

Development kits designed specifically for the internet of things provide the hardware, software, firmware, and tools necessary for engineers to accelerate IoT product time to market. Development kit providers will support the IoT ecosystem with new, easily accessible solutions for professionals and makers alike.