At its simplest level, the Internet of things (IoT) is a network of devices that gather data and send it to a central point where, after analysis, the information can be acted upon. For example, a wireless temperature monitor might indicate a room is too hot, allowing the control system to send a message back to the heater to back off. But this simple concept is underpinned by complex technology, and developers are asking for help to test and evaluate IoT concepts.
Meeting this demand is the motivation behind Nordic Semiconductor’s nRF Connect for Cloud, a Cloud-based service portal designed to help engineers create and verify IoT designs. The service is free for developers using Nordic’s technology and stores evaluated designs for future use or enables access for revision before the device enters full production.
The portal has been developed by Nordic’s IoT Lab, based in Portland, Orgeon, U.S. The Lab was created to support developers designing IoT innovations using both Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) and cellular IoT technology. At its inauguration, Nordic IoT Lab director Chris Hansen said that while the IoT was already proving a success in industrial applications, to achieve its forecast growth it would also need to be integrated into consumer products. And that is where nRF Connect for Cloud comes into its own.
nRF Connect for Cloud’s application guides users through the development process, using plain, non-technical language. After all, just because a person is not an engineer capable of compiling code, doesn’t mean they can’t have a good idea, and certainly shouldn’t be an obstacle to developing an IoT device founded on that idea. Based on this principle of universal accessibility, nRF Connect for Cloud enables developers to create and test an IoT project.
“nRF Connect for Cloud is a tool for our developers, to help them build IoT solutions using Nordic [Systems-on-Chip],” says Hansen. “As a novice, you can get an IoT solution up and running in ten minutes.
“The IoT is made up of many component parts, and nRF Connect for Cloud is a visualization of those component parts, ” adds Hansen.
The first step is for users to create an nRF Connect for Cloud account at nrfcloud.com. Once the account is established, users can start connecting IoT devices to that account. To do this a gateway needs to be set up to enable the user’s Bluetooth LE device to connect to the Internet. There are iOS and Android apps available to allow smartphones to be used as gateways and PCs can also be employed.
To register the gateway in nRF Connect for Cloud the user is required to install nRF Connect software and the nRF Connect for Cloud Gateway plug-in on their smartphone or PC.
nRF Connect is a cross-platform software tool that enables easy set-up of connections with other devices and then uses these connections for reading and writing to the external nodes. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the nRF51 Development Kit (DK), the nRF51 Dongle, or the nRF52 DK running a specific connectivity application. nRF Connect for Cloud will automatically detect which kit is connected and upload the firmware if it’s not programmed into the kit already.
Nordic’s Software DKs (SDKs) have pre-programmed code for sensors available for free download. For example, the nRF5 SDK for IoT is programmed with the precompiled nRF Connect for Cloud demo application. The SDK provides drivers, libraries, examples, and application programming interfaces (APIs) for nRF52 Series SoCs and an IPv6 over Bluetooth LE adaption layer (6LoWPAN) and Internet Protocol (IP) Suite, so applications can connect directly to Cloud services.
To test their set-up, the developer programs the precompiled nRF Connect for Cloud demo application on an nRF5 DK and connects the kit through the gateway to their nRF Connect for Cloud account.
“This is the ‘Hello World’ program for the IoT,” says Hansen, referring to the simple program used to illustrate the syntax of a programming language in computing. While the novice can be “up and running in ten minutes,” the functionality will also appeal to the more experienced developer, using tools such as the nRF51 DK or the nRF52 DK. Both support the standard Nordic Software Development Tool chain, using Keil, IAR Systems, and GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) tools.
Once connected, the nRF Connect for Cloud front-end application allows the user to manage and monitor all their IoT devices. The dashboard displays the number of gateways and devices connected to that nRF Connect for Cloud account, and for each device tracks live data, logs historical data, and allows the user to receive alerts in real time. As it is Cloud-based, teams can collaborate on IoT designs wherever they are in the world.
nRF Connect for Cloud supports Nordic’s ultra low power Bluetooth LE nRF51 and nRF52 Series SoCs, as well as the recently launched Nordic Thingy:52 IoT Sensor Kit. This compact, multi-sensor development kit is designed to build IoT prototypes without the need to program, build hardware, or write firmware. Instead prototypes and demos can be configured from nRF Connect for Cloud using a Bluetooth API. Thingy:52 is supplied with a smartphone app, plus a web app.
Most common third-party sensors are supported by this development kit, says Hansen, to bring temperature, motion, sound, heat, and light data to any IoT application. Other sensing applications already supported in nRF Connect for Cloud include cadence monitoring for cycling applications, and heart rate monitoring. Once downloaded, code can be customized to suit the IoT solution, or tailored for a particular company, for example by changing values such as Fahrenheit to Centigrade, or even renaming sensors for the project.
Direct to the network
When Nordic commercially launches its nRF91 Series System-in-Package (SiP), no gateway will be needed. The low power cellular IoT solution is currently sampling to selected customers, with full production scheduled by the end of the year. It is the first product to use Arm’s Cortex-M33 processor, which has Arm TrustZone for Armv8-M security technology to protect areas of the SiP’s memory from malicious attacks. (See pg8.) This is particularly important as access to the Internet is via a network where communication cannot be controlled in the same way it is with Bluetooth LE technology, where connections are restricted to a direct path between A and B.
Support for the nRF91 Series SiP is the next big goal for Hansen. It will add more functionality to support the manufacture and testing of IoT solutions. Support for asset tracking is one example of what the nRF91 Series will bring to IoT development. Asset tracking can be used in industrial and retail environments to detect location and proximity using radio signals. For example, the technology can be used in warehouses to monitor stock and ensure access to secure areas is limited to authorized personnel. In the workplace, the technology can recognize staff as they move, and adjust the environment to suit working conditions.
Connecting directly to the Cloud without the need for a gateway is a “big advantage” says Hansen, although he does point out that LTE will require a subscription to a carrier, with perhaps a cost attached to each device. Direct connection will deliver all the sensor data to the Cloud to enable developers to review it over periods of time, access the data for future use, or to refine an IoT solution.
As the IoT continues to expand, tools like nRF Connect for Cloud have the potential to unleash a new wave of innovation that could see even today’s dramatic growth projections for the IoT exceeded.