Guest column: U-blox on creating IoT tech that really matters

9 Oct 2015

Andreas Thiel, co-founder and executive director of wireless product development of U-blox

How do we differentiate between the internet of things (IoT) and IoT that really matters? U-blox’s co-founder, Andreas Thiel, weighs in with his thoughts.

IoT Makers Week graphic

IoT has emerged as a major technological trend with enormous potential, and countless companies are getting involved with creative products. Dramatic reductions in the cost of wireless communications, computing and sensors are combining to make it realistic to ‘wire things together over the Internet’.

Today, many such products are targeted at the consumer market, where price is a key factor. There is also increasing growth in industrial applications for IoT products, but, while price is important, as always, an even more critical factor exists: extremely-high reliability.

In IoT, U-blox finds itself in a unique position – rather than having to change our business to access the market, much of what we are already doing is directly relevant for IoT.

Further, leveraging off our focus on quality and reliability, U-blox has made a conscious decision to concentrate on business critical applications, which we refer to as the ‘IoT that really matters’.

The term IoT covers a wide range of applications and products, but a common function they all share is communications between ‘end points’ (the devices that are the ‘things’) on one side and data and control systems on the other.

This type of communication, often referred to as machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, has traditionally been done using hard-wired networks, but more recently takes place over the internet and, increasingly, over wireless links.

It is important to emphasise what differentiates M2M and IoT.

With M2M, as the name suggests, two devices exchange data with each other. IoT takes this concept a step further – data is sent into the cloud where information gathered from numerous independent sources can be aggregated.

Now it is possible to perform new management and analytical tasks, such as paying for services like car insurance on a per-use basis or maintaining equipment on demand. At the same time, deep data analysis of big data can reveal insights and trends otherwise unseen. We are only beginning to find applications that take advantage of all this data.

The market moves to U-blox

Returning to an earlier theme, why is the IoT market moving toward U-blox and not vice-versa? The reason is simple: for quite some time we have been heavily involved in M2M communications which, as just noted, is the technology at the heart of IoT.

We continue to follow our core strategy of developing the components that build the infrastructure behind the internet of things. As companies invest in IoT, they require M2M as the base technology, and we have extensive expertise in the chips and modules needed to get devices communicating with each other, whether over long distances using cellular or short-range radio, or for location finding using GNSS satellite signals.

Further, much of the hype around IoT is associated with relatively ‘lightweight’ applications – ones where the value added by IoT is slight. However, there are good business reasons for adopting this technology.

For instance, companies can move from merely selling products to selling a service, with the recurring income that brings. Companies in the industrial sector can offer their customers totally new functionalities.

U-blox is concentrating on these latter markets and, in our terms, they fall under the heading of IoT that really matters: areas where performance and robustness are mandatory.

u-blox picture

U-blox focuses on enabling the technology other companies need to create products for IoT. Illustration via U-blox

Some IoT applications require the highest reliability

To show that reliability is critical in IoT that really matters, consider two examples. The first is an automotive telematics company that sells a UBI (usage-based insurance) service, where in-vehicle positioning and wireless connectivity allow the collection of location, speed and acceleration data for use in insurance telematics applications that may dramatically reduce insurance costs and reduce fraud.

The same company also provides services to automotive companies, such as automatic alert assistance when a car is involved in a crash, theft alert assistance, plus breakdown and roadside assistance.

In some cases, human lives might even depend on reliable communications. These services require both location information from one U-blox module and cellular capability from another.

As you can imagine, if there are any malfunctions in these two devices, the company’s business model falls apart.

This application points out another factor that makes U-blox stand out: its ability to create synergies from its multiple communications technologies – cellular, short-range (WiFi and Bluetooth) and location or positioning.

Another application, this time from manufacturing, is a manufacturing assembly tool that downloads settings for a specific job wirelessly from a nearby controller. The failure of the comms link can bring the production line to its knees. Here, the user needs short-range communications that this user praises as being ‘more reliable than a cable’.

Both of these applications illustrate requirements that all business-critical applications share: very-high quality, robust performance, long service life and expert applications support.

More specifically, U-blox focuses on the connected car (safety, vehicle diagnostics, infotainment, navigation and fleet management), connected cities (metering, parking, traffic control, lighting, electric-vehicle charging and real-time analysis) and the industrial internet (aviation, oil and gas, transportation, power generation and distribution, manufacturing, healthcare and mining).

Android Auto

Connected car technology. Image via Opel

Companies struggle with implementing wireless products

Many companies see great potential in adding wireless communications and location capabilities to their products for entry into the IoT marketplace. While they are specialists in their particular sectors, they do not have the expertise needed to create a reliable wireless solution.

Further, they are often not aware of exactly what they are able to do with their data and how they can benefit from tagging it with very accurate time and location information.

As a result, these companies need a strong, competent partner – like U-blox – who can provide not only high-quality, reliable products, but also comprehensive applications engineering support from the conceptual level down to detailed designs.

We produce chips and modules; we do not provide end-user products or services. We do not make the products to handle big data, storage or service delivery.

Another way to say this is that, while we provide the enabling technology for IoT devices, we do not operate in the cloud. We simply make it possible for devices to send their time, location and other data there – data that describes the what, when or where of an event or task.

When we provide application support, you can trust us completely with your design information because we don’t compete with our customers.

Controlling core technology

U-blox is continually investing in controlling the core technology. For instance, third-party chips aimed at products for the consumer market – just one of many examples being the smartphone – are often not the best choice for IoT and M2M functionality.

By controlling all the chipset and software technology, U-blox can quickly change product functions to meet new requirements. We can create product differentiation through performance and features.

We offer products in several quality grades – standard grade for cost-sensitive applications, professional grade for after-market vehicle mounted devices and industrial products, and automotive grade for sophisticated first-mount vehicle applications where high-end features and tolerance to environmental stress are the highest priorities.

Note, too, that products undergo 100pc outgoing testing following our zero-defect policy.

Finally, because we control the technology, U-blox can guarantee the long-term availability of our products.

Indeed, there is a big difference between the IoT we are all familiar with and the IoT that really matters. With our experience in wireless communications, broad product range and emphasis on quality, U-blox is in a perfect position to assist companies in the automotive, industrial and consumer markets that want to enter the IoT.

Andreas Thiel is the co-founder and executive director of wireless product development of U-blox, a Swiss-based company with an R&D centre in Cork, working in wireless communications and positioning semiconductors and modules for the industrial, automotive and consumer markets.

IoT Makers Week explores the internet of things revolution and the makers driving it with reports on from 5 to 9 October 2015. Get updates by subscribing to our news alerts or following @siliconrepublic and the hashtag #IoTMakersWeek on Twitter.