Why do software vendors consider prototyping the essential step to IoT project success? How do you choose the right Internet of Things development board? Get your answers here!
3 reasons to prototype your idea using an off-the-shelf IoT board
A prototype is a trial version of your connected gadget built with inexpensive hardware components including sensors, microcontroller units, and microcomputers which can be purchased on eBay. Prototyping is the only way to validate your idea and prove it can be brought to life technology-wise.
According to Pavel Shylenok, CTO at R-Style Lab, there are two major reasons to design an IoT solution using 3rd-party development boards:
- Cost-effectiveness: Hardware production and certification consume the lion’s share (up to 80%) of an IoT project budget. Before you negotiate the deal with a device manufacturer, you need to specify hardware requirements (including processing power, connectivity tech and power consumption) – and that’s where IoT dev boards come in handy;
- Rapid development: As long as you make use of 3rd-party development boards, you’ll be able to put up a decent prototype in mere weeks and get down to embedded system and mobile app development straight away.
Microcontroller development board overview
There are three types of IoT prototyping solutions:
1. Plug-and-play IoT development kits.
Targeted at amateur IoT developers and hardware engineers, ready-to-use Internet of Things hardware kits like littleBits, Flotilla and Grove feature single-purpose modules equipped with sensors; these modules add wireless connectivity to dumb objects and serve as extensions of fully-fledged microcomputers like Arduino and BeagleBoard. Such kits are most often used for educational purposes;
2. Single-board microcontrollers.
Standalone microcontroller units (MCUs) feature low-power processors which support Lua, C++ and other programming environments, use firmware instead of a traditional operating system, collect sensor data and send it to an on-prem or cloud-based server.
By 2024, the global IoT microcontroller market will top $6.4 billion. With so many MCU manufacturers out there, we’ll have to narrow down our search to the most popular solutions:
- ESP8266: The low-code MCU supports Wi-Fi and the MQTT messaging protocol, thus enabling developers to connect the board to the Internet without a gateway solution and merge it into complex device networks made up of thousands of smart sensors. The MCU’s major drawback is its limited processing power. Power consumption, on the contrary, is ESP8266’s strong suit: depending on the harness and set-up, a 3000 mAh gadget can keep the microcontroller going for up to 3 years!
- ESP32: Compared to ESP8266, ESP32 features two CPUs operating at a frequency of 160 Mhz, has an increased RAM (which enables support for certain encryption algorithms) and works with Bluetooth-only devices. When measured against a 3000 mAh gadget, the MCU can last for 5 years with the deep sleep mode on.
- ATmega328P: Unlike other MCUs on our list, ATmega328P lacks wireless interfaces and cannot be implemented without extra harness. The microcontroller facilitates serial communication and sensor data collection; its power consumption ranges from 50mA to 0.004 mA.
- STM32F469: Designed for LCD screen interfaces and wearable gadgets, the STM32F469 microcontrollers support heavy calculations and help developers craft advanced graphic UIs. A wearable device like Apple Watch would drain its battery in 7-10 days.
Unlike traditional MCUs, microcomputers do use an operating system (according to this year’s Eclipse IoT developer Survey, 81.5% of IoT vendors favor Linux over other technologies) and support a variety of dev tools and environments. Also, microcomputers are powered with graphic accelerators and quad-core processors and work in sync with multiple output gadgets.
As of now, the IoT microcomputer market is dominated by BeagleBoard and Raspberry Pi products that smarten up dumb TV sets, printers, robots, weather stations and other electronic devices.
The question is, which IoT development board should you pick for your next project?
The choice of a prototyping solution depends on your gadget’s feature set, as well as connectivity and performance requirements (which should be defined during the Proof of Concept stage – that is, through trial and error).
Here’s an example.
The company I work for has recently embarked on a complex Home Security project. Our customer (a promising tech start-up from the United States) wanted the system to track movement both inside and outside buildings and trigger the alarms/notify home owners if suspicious activity is detected.
We opted for an Arduino board enhanced with PIR motion sensors and found out the ratio between the measured parameters and data output did not meet the system requirements. We then swapped the PIR sensors for sensitive Doppler tech – and failed again. In the end, we made use of the optical tracking technology and connected several cameras to a powerful Raspberry Pi board.
Although the global Internet of Things market will top $561 billion in 2022, we’re still decades away from the global interconnected environment depicted in Blade Runner. It’s still a novelty concept – and that’s why IoT projects involve so much research. In order to achieve the desired level of performance and data accuracy, you have to experiment with different IoT prototyping tools to see what works best.
Written by Andrei Klubnikin, Senior Content Manager at R-Style Lab