Everyone is familiar with the technologies used for ‘person to person’ communication such as mobile phones or PCs, but perhaps most are not so well acquainted with M2M (Machine-to-Machine), which is the broad term for a huge range of machines that talk to other machines, which can be servers, controllers, sensors or ‘the cloud’.
However, the rapid adoption of M2M is already happening, despite the fact that M2M technology is not clearly understood by consumers, except perhaps for those who have used more ‘human’ devices such as an eBook reader or a game system, or those that have worked with telematics, industrial controls, the smart grid, or in embedded computing and other related areas.
The ‘Internet of Things’
The Internet is no longer a network of computers: it has evolved into a network of devices of all types and sizes, all connected, all communicating and sharing information all the time, such as cars, refrigerators, smartphones, toys, cameras, medical instruments and industrial systems. There are already more than one billion M2M devices at work today in sensors, smart meters, smart buildings and so on, but this number is expected to quickly grow to 20-50 billion in the coming years, which will require and drive integrated solutions from a robust ecosystem. In fact, according to market analyst IDC, it is expected that by 2015, intelligent M2M systems will account for more than one-third of the volume of all embedded systems worldwide.
In this ‘Internet of Things’, devices, systems and machines do not only communicate with humans, they also communicate with each other and can generate an enormous volume of data such as temperature, GPS position, speed, humidity, vibration, altitude, and many more. This data can be used in all kinds of smart ways when it is collected, analysed and applied to products, systems and services. It can be used to optimise performance, maximise efficiency, and minimise cost and resource usage. M2M and related smart systems can even use data to make decisions to meet business goals, such as improved service delivery, increased responsiveness, lower prices, new or enhanced service offerings. And what is more, they can often do so faster and more efficiently than people.
M2M is an enabler for smart energy in several areas: exploration and production; power generation including renewable energy; smart distribution networks; smart meters; electric vehicle charging; and home and building energy management systems. As distributed energy sources such as solar and wind power approach 10% of total generated power, maintaining quality power becomes increasingly difficult without a smarter distribution network. Distribution effectiveness, improving power quality and reliability, and enabling a wide range of end user applications are key drivers and can each be addressed by M2M technology. M2M monitoring and control enables the smart grid to adjust to changing conditions with higher reliability, security and performance than ever before. To ensure quality, securing the distribution is vital, which means a requirement for fast, active, responsive and accurate set of monitors and controllers, not just in the core of the network but also in smart meters or building energy-management systems.
Industrial markets have used machines, robots and other forms of M2M control devices and systems for many years, but new advancements are creating new opportunities. For example, M2M technology can be used for predictive maintenance, which uses one or more criteria from monitoring data and runs it through analytics and historical patterns to determine when a component may be nearing failure. By acting on this knowledge, downtime can be minimised. As an example, semiconductor fabs use vibration data collected by M2M devices and sent wirelessly to a vibration analysis subsystem. As there are thousands of points to measure, it is impractical and ineffective for a human to monitor these points. Action before a problem occurs means the reduction of major issues that potentially cost millions of dollars.
In the medical area, smart M2M devices, services and applications enable people and healthcare professionals to understand their conditions and make accurate, timely, and realistic recommendations. Devices to monitor — and in some cases control — the progress of patients is key, in addition to making sure information gets to the right person or system. Taking a home health-monitoring application as a further example, there exists the ability to perform remote heartbeat monitoring. Typically, accumulated data is not reported back to a medical professional every second, but is stored on a monitor that is normally attached to a patient, for example. Perhaps a couple of day’s worth of data is recorded and then sent to the clinician or healthcare professional, and following analysis, it can be determined if any immediate or corrective action is required.
Challenges and requirements
Each system or M2M application is different, but essentially the process breaks down into two different domains. The first part is making sure that the devices perform correctly and connect and communicate their data. The second part is the data transmission, which could be to a person or another machine or the cloud to perform business analytics, which is essentially to review it and make decisions based upon the data.
Today, and previously, the biggest challenge for M2M is implementation. There are plenty of discrete examples that have existed for 20 years, such as telemetry and telematics. But while it is relatively simple to create a single device or service, it remains a real challenge to scale the process and then operate it. The difference now is that platform approaches are being built to meet as many of those challenges as possible, enabling the acceleration and streamlining of development while reducing cost, complexity and the potential pitfalls that have been experienced for many years — and do it at scale and with a broader range of devices, service and applications to gain increasing benefits. However, right now, the industry is still early on in this transition.
Device hardware is clearly going to be dependent on the type of function it is designed to perform. A device such as a mobile heart monitor is going to be a relatively low-cost and low-performance device, although the reliability needs to be extremely high; for a wind turbine or a digital-signage display, these are clearly more expensive. So, while some specific demands will vary, in general, requirements are roughly the same; it has to be cost effective and offer an appropriate level of performance and a certain longevity, which is often underestimated. Clearly, it makes a significant difference if a device’s hardware- and software-related services are only good for two years versus another that offers a lifetime of seven years or longer.
As soon as an M2M device is connected, immediately there is a suite of requirements that come into play:
Devices must be secure, reliable, and have acceptable performance;
Connectivity options should include wired and wireless, WAN, LAN, PAN and into the cloud;
Devices must be manageable beyond just seeing if the device is working;
Deployments must scale to large numbers of unattended devices;
M2M experience must be simplified — easy to understand, order, buy, install, build, use, operate, manage, fix, and so forth;
Solutions must be flexible. A wide range of customer needs, components, and global requirements exist;
Many devices will be mobile and may transition from one domain to another;
Location determination will be important for many devices and applications;
The smarter the device, data, and application, the more valuable the solution;
Industry standards must be identified and supported.
In essence, it has to be secure and manageable and with the right protocols to connect to IT systems or increasingly, to the cloud, whether this is private, public or a hybrid of both. This is far easier said than done, which is why services in the past have largely been based on a single device and single service. But the growing approach is to have a broader range of services that make use of essentially the same available data provided by the devices or sensors.
Developing the system
Many businesses have recognised the potential of M2M technology and decided to undertake an initial project. Usually the plan is to improve a specific area of the business (typically increasing service value or reducing expenses) via a pilot program, then expand the pilot to full-site or multisite deployment, and then repeat the success within another area of the business. Often, companies themselves want to do as much of the M2M project as possible, to save time and maintain control. And all too often, they learn the hard way that there are many hidden pitfalls in the do-it-yourself approach.
However, this is where vendors such as Wind River can add significant value to the process bringing the right software tools and know-how. Embedded markets lack the same scale and uniformity that exists in general consumer technology markets, so the benefits and ability to vertically integrate through acquisition or investment for any one company is limited. To develop and market an end-to-end software stack or value chain, no single company can do all of it by themselves. Inevitably, there is going to be a great deal of partnering. Building and delivering an M2M solution involves combining silicon, hardware, middleware and tools, application design, connectivity/cloud services, and the overall integration and testing of the system.
Embedded development kits for M2M
As an example M2M development package, Wind River’s Embedded Development Kit for M2M Smart Services is a plug-and-play ‘application ready’ hardware and OS/middleware platform. Powered by Intel Atom processors, the kit includes:
Wind River Linux, in addition to an optimised run-time image, a scalable build system, pre-integrated drivers and middleware packages;
Wind River Workbench IDE and the best open-source tools adapted and extended for embedded development;
Cloud connectivity via pre-configured connection to Eurotech’s Everyware Device Cloud;
Application framework and development tooling via Eurotech’s Everyware Software Framework (ESF);
Small form-factor hardware from Kontron – physical chassis measuring 67 x 100 x 27mm and weighing 0.36kg, which can easily scale to address a broad range of connectivity including both wired and Wi-Fi WLAN connectivity and cellular configuration, with I/O options including Ethernet, USB, MicroUSB, MicroHDMI, MicroSD and microphone and headphone/line out.
Wind River also recently announced a collaboration with Digi to develop a new family of cloud-connected wireless M2M solutions. Based on the Intel Atom processor E6204, these kits will include hardware, software, cloud connectivity and access to tailored M2M development services and are expected to offer components including the Wind River Linux environment with an M2M software development kit (SDK); Wind River Workbench; and iDigi Connector integration, which allows any device to integrate easily with the iDigi Device Cloud.
Advanced M2M development packages such as these can significantly simplify the development, implementation and management of solutions, so that companies can rapidly deploy intelligent, connected and secure devices to realise the benefits of M2M for their businesses.
Author profile: Brian Vezza champions M2M markets and solutions at Wind River. Previously he led an M2M venture project in Nortel's CTO office and has been actively involved in M2M since 2002, when he initiated and led its M2M investigation and has worked on a wide range of M2M solutions. He has nine patents granted and 21 patent applications, including more than 10 directly relating to ‘intelligent solutions’ and M2M. He holds a Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of California, San Diego.