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Andrew at MEA

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Everything posted by Andrew at MEA

  1. Telstra's NB IoT network launched

    Gentlemen Thanks for the interesting update on the Telstra IoT network switch-on. We've been waiting for this news. Sadly for us, our modem supplier (Sierra Wireless) won't release matching LTE Cat-M1 hardware until some time in 2018. So sadly, no-way we can put all this to the test. I wonder if the pricing models reflect the much smaller payloads the IoT will be using?
  2. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The Long Tail of the IoT Some days I just want to run and hide! For 42 years I’ve been engineering measurement technology for mining, renewable energy, climate and agricultural applications. And time and again I’ve been whipped by the long tail of in-field product failures. Is it just that I’m crap at this stuff? It’s tempting to think this way when our marketing staff are throwing rocks through my window, customers are ringing in with reports of equipment outages, agents are threatening insurrection and our manufacturers and suppliers stiff us with dicky mouldings, sensors or PCBs. I have only one answer at these times, and that’s to keep my trap shut and begin the long business of grinding down problems that arise, one at a time, and to hope that MEA can survive in business until the current crisis is forgotten in the rear-view mirror. Do all these kids forecasting a rosy future for themselves ‘in the IoT space’ have any idea at all what it’s like on the other side of product launch? Because that’s when one starts down the long tail of product support and maintenance… A third major Australian competitor of ours collapsed this past year, with the remnants of their technology sold off to an overseas concern, local staff laid off and all customers abandoned. Many smaller ones have come and gone over the past few decades. Two of these three companies were backed by tens of millions of dollars in investment funds. They got through to product launch before in-field issues stared to bite and profit levels failed to rise to lift the company before investor cash burn ceased. Maybe life’s easier for those IoT developers sheltered inside Smart Cities? But somehow, I doubt it. MEA is now five years down the track from our very first commercial installation of an on-farm IoT ZigBee sensor network (we still hadn’t got the connection to the cloud working back then – all data landed on the farm PC) Week after week for all those intervening years we’ve been working to shore up our technology and processes that showed weaknesses under a real-world hammering. No victory can ever be declared, simply because no marketplace or technology is ever permanent. As Winston Churchill put it: “If you're going through hell, keep going.”
  3. When all is said and done, there has usually been more said than done! This is surely true of the IoT. I agree with IoT’s promise, but see few of its practitioners. Much of the IoT hype talks about connecting the fridge to the stove, although why, I can’t imagine. Business cannot thrive without customers, and who are they in IoT land, once the Early Adopters have tired of its promise? I can claim some small expertise in this area, having successfully launched an On-Farm Internet-of Sensors system called Plexus three years ago, moving soil moisture and climate data using solar-powered mesh networks across the farm and up to a web-application in the cloud that allows farmers to access their irrigation data from anywhere, at any time. To break into this field required a huge investment of funds over three years, a multi-disciplinary approach that hauled together electronic, mechanical, communications and software engineers, plus external industrial design skills, a manufacturing link into China, all sorts of technical skills to set up the production line, and some thirty years of previous environmental measurements in the bush merely to battle-harden the troops. Then you have to sell it and keep it working until you’ve crossed the ‘valley of death’ between early adopters and the early majority. So the hard reality is that breaking into the whole IoT technological arena is non-trivial; it’s no place for the faint-of-heart or the weak-of-purse or the inexperienced-yet-hopeful. But it is fun, and at last, slightly lucrative. Dr Andrew Skinner FIEAust CPEng NER South Australian Professional Engineer of the Year, 2015
  4. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The IoT and the Startup Mirage Hardly a week goes by without a brand-new Startup trumpeting their claims to vast IoT territories that I’ve so laboriously trudged across these past few decades - all with the vast expenditure of technical and marketing effort and the humiliation of field failures. Sexy websites show groups of attractive and happy young people all holding slim notebook computers or sitting in front of modern terminals in airy bright atrium work spaces - all this far removed from the cluttered bench space of our working engineers and the reality of a manufacturing facility. A quick scan of the startup's Board Members shows some pretty high-flying suits, no doubt moving through rarefied circles well beyond my ken while collecting salaries far exceeding my own hard-earned stipend. The very occasional Case Study of a field deployment mentioned on these web sites trumpets only Success, dressed up to look like a massive product rollout that’s taken a grateful market by storm. Ringing around the marketplace throws a harsher light on these systems; they are often merely preliminary trial units on free-loan to potential customers, rather than working systems sold after winning over skeptical farmers. Look under the News tab on these web sites and you’ll find photos of company executives in black tie and tails at Award ceremonies, being congratulated on their tremendous growth (potential). Perhaps the final indignity is the ready cash showering down – investors seem to flock to startups, while companies demonstrating organic growth, sound management, field-proven products, job creation, customer loyalty, a high level of support and routes to market stand ignored on the sidelines. Totally flummoxed by all this modern-day smoke and mirrors, I sought a non-engineering perspective. I tried to follow the resulting explanation – I really did! The bottom line seems to be that I’m a troglodyte mired in the perception that the best indication of market success is a signed purchase order and positive cash flow. That it’s not about what you can design and sell, but about selling yourself and your startup’s ‘disruptive potential’ to groups of investors (gamblers?) based on a storyboard of your trajectory to becoming the next Google, Apple, Amazon or Tesla. So I’m left trying to find some small crumbs of comfort amidst a tidal-wave of media releases suggesting that our end is nigh. Perhaps I’ll just ignore all the clamour and stick to my knitting, leaving the passage of time rather than the world-wide-web to make the final judgement call on who really succeeded in making something out of the IoT.
  5. Introducing Bluetooth Mesh Networking

    Nice video of the difference between point-to-point and mesh-networked radios; thanks for posting.
  6. http://myriota.com/myriota-wins-best-new-business-sa-telstra-business-awards/ South Australian satellite-based IoT company Myriota is becoming "recognised for turning clever technology into a successful business”
  7. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The IoT and Life in the Cloud The Internet of Things is intimately married to the Internet and its (actually ground-based) Cloud Computing. This whole centralized on-farm software has freed MEA from the tyranny of PC-based data presentation with all its upgrade issues, computer obsolescence, software on CDs and web-sites, and the constant need to cope with changing Windows operating systems. With Cloud-based computing, we have a single web-application to maintain on a single server (someplace) in the Cloud. Serving all our users simultaneously... Yet with these new freedoms come new responsibilities; one small slip and we have hundreds of users howling at our door. Where’s our data!!!??? And so, this whole business of cloud-computing is one of constant vigilance, late night panics, server and Internet outages and the usual costly upgrades to ensure that we are using the very latest web and graphics software tools. All this without even thinking too hard about security, backups and Acts of God. MEA’s Green Brain web app - and the Plexus IoT on-farm hardware feeding it - celebrate five years from launch in early August this year. The number of users has risen from one or two Early Adopters to hundreds of irrigators spread right across the map of Australia’s arable landscapes. We’ve been working recently to connect MEA’s regional weather station networks to Green Brain; more useful data for farmers, yet a widening of MEA’s responsibility to the general farming community to keep this whole complex technical structure up and operating. Green Brain’s data base now holds a non-trivial half-billion records and is growing apace. So the question must be asked: “Have we created a monster or a valuable tool?” And the answer might well be that we don’t know, because the game’s still on and we keep juggling the difficulties, making small wins, discovering weaknesses and endlessly tweaking our way out of them. In fact, just doing what MEA has been doing since I founded the company in 1984 – getting environmental data back from the Australian bush.
  8. US stamps down on non-compliant IoT devices

    Thanks Tim - a scary post, indeed. Putting aside the $90,000 fine on that one non-compliant product/company, the FCC is essentially stating that it has the power to ban a product or manufacturer from the US market for ever! I've talked elsewhere on this forum about the very high cost of gaining FCC and CE compliance certification ('The IoT and Electro-Magnetic Compliance') The hidden sting in the IoT tail is that one cannot count for protection upon the US radio manufacturer's own FCC compliance statements*; you have to undertake full IoT product compliance yourself. In Australia, this will set you back about three months and nearly $20,000. This is one of the arguments for using radio 'modules' - as opposed to chips sets - in your IoT product design. The module will carry its own EMC compliance certificate, at the expense of a large impost in price once you start to manufacture in quantities. * we found that Texas Instrument's ZigBee 'system-on-chip' radios breached the allowable FCC noise levels in the 2.4 GHz side-bands, effectively shutting us out of the US market until we fitted band-pass filters to the Plexus radio transmitters.
  9. The IoT and the Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies Yet again, I’ve received an invitation to a gathering of knowledgeable folk who will present various high-level speakers to “share insights on the future of Australian life over the next 14 years, specifically the changes that the Internet of Things and related emerging technologies will have on the world around us". In August 2014, the IoT reached the ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ (according to the Gartner report on Emerging Technologies), predicting real product in the mainstream market 5 to 10 years hence (2019-2024). Here’s the story: https://www.forbes.com/sites/gilpress/2014/08/18/its-official-the-internet-of-things-takes-over-big-data-as-the-most-hyped-technology/#3ef7083d3aca Our Engineers Australia IoT forum will soon be one year old. Can anyone provide me with a list of successful Australian IoT technologies that have reached technological maturity and have a profitable business model? I could do with some statistics when I enter that roomful of IoT experts… Or is the IoT still only hype?
  10. The IoT and the Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies

    One Australian company with commercial IoT product in the market is Taggle: http://www.taggle.com.au/ I had a visit from their Chief Product Officer - Marc Englaro - earlier this week and took some notes as he responded to my questions: - Taggle offer their own networks targeted at water utilities for water metering and rainfall measurements. Taggle's systems are largely based within towns and cities, allowing them to deploy their own hubs and control their own network roll-outs Taggle sell their radios for water meter transmitter for <$100 each in large quantities (the sort of numbers used by utilities). Taggle's radios operate on the 920MHz ISM band, using one-way transmissions Data cost per site is under $1 per month. The primary cell battery will last about as long as the water meter. Range is typically 5 kms. Taggle have put these out onto about 40 000 water meters made by an Australian company out of Melbourne Taggle’s technology arises from CSIRO spin-offs by the rf group that invented Wi-Fi Taggle have reached 25 Australian utilities, most recently SA Water under their Smart City program. All errors and omissions are mine in this reporting
  11. Myriota wins major IoT award

    South Australian company recognised at major international IoT Summit South Australian IoT company, Myriota, has been awarded Best Industrial IoT Start Up Company at the world’s largest IoT summit, held in Silicon Valley. Myriota was one of over 100 start up companies from around the globe, who pitched to a panel of Silicon Valley and International IoT experts at Internet of Things World 2017. Myriota has developed a low power, low cost, satellite IoT communications platform, making transmission of small data from remote locations economically viable for a whole new class of sensors and machines. See the full story here: http://myriota.com/myriota-wins-at-iot-summit/
  12. Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN)

    A recent article in Electronic Design magazine by contributing editor Lou Frenzel is an excellent summary of technologies available for Low-Power Wide Area Networks (LPWANs). The article is called “Long-Range IoT on the Road to Success” http://www.electronicdesign.com/embedded-revolution/long-range-iot-road-success There’s discussion on some new long-range Wi-Fi technologies called White-Fi and HaLow, as well as a useful table comparing the nine different technologies outlined.
  13. One cubic mm IoT device

    I also read this article when it appeared in print in the IEEE magazine 'Spectrum' What interested me was the return to the concept of 'on-site' data compression offered by this powerful computing platform. I agree with Heath that the size is interesting, but that's not particularly important in my field of IoT environmental measurements. I suspect that the real hint being offered here is that the power and speed of computation in the Cloud is being recognised as finite, and that on-site sensor algorithms (that we've had for decades within smart sensors) will make a big difference to the speed and utility of the IoT.
  14. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The IoT and Open-Source Software I can claim no particular moral high-ground for using an Open-Source Linux platform for our latest IoT Hub, which links our on-farm Plexus ZigBee network through to our Green Brain web app in the cloud. Frankly, that was a decision thrust upon us by the modem manufacturer (Sierra Wireless) when they obsoleted previous generations of cellular modem chips (running the Open-AT OS), essentially forcing us to step up to their ‘MangoOH’ (Linux) platform. So, it felt a bit odd to receive an email from Sierra Wireless asking MEA for a product testimonial. To save time explaining Plexus, I simply sent him a link to this blog, and here’s what came back: “Hi Andrew, I have read and re-read your blog posts a couple of times since you sent this mail. Seems like you and your team have done a great job in building/maintaining/diversifying the platform and also carrying the torch for IoT in Australia. Kudos on that! One aspect that I would be interested to know is how the open source technologies like mangOH are helping your product development. Would you be able to provide some insight into that? As you can imagine that is a lot of effort that we put in (and it still needs more) but would be good to get input from people like you. [SW]” So I wrote back, as follows: “Thanks for your kind words. I’ve had a quick word with the engineer writing the new Plexus Sierra Wireless WP8548 modem code under the Legato system (which is new to MEA) His comments were that: It’s reassuring to be using code that has been ‘stress-tested’ However, this is somewhat offset by the pain of being an early-adopter, which often requires work-arounds for pieces of incomplete code that may be only partly documented. All with the risk of having to re-work stuff later. For the most part though, the new Legato platform and all the good tools that it includes is making development quicker. The real beauty of the open-source platform is that access to the vast existing code-base written by others allows one to learn, build, share, improve, contribute to the community. As a fellow engineer commented recently, he won’t even start a software project these days unless a community is involved. So, there’s ‘safety in numbers’… The licensing arrangements are a real head-spin; we’re engineers, not lawyers. Likewise, the fee structure for the Over-Air-Programming. Support for web-socket CLIENTS written in the C-language seem a bit scarce. Hope this is helpful. It’s all just the usual fog ahead, which happens frequently to us scouts.” This past week at MEA, we fired up our first prototype of the next Plexus Hub running under Linux. And yes, it’s doing the same job as the old Hub. While all this change, expense and heart-ache is invisible to our end-users, perhaps the benefits will be felt further along the product cycle in more rapid reaction to changing demands?
  15. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    MEA's Green Brain Inside MEA, our on-farm IoT product – Plexus - looks like a whole bunch of sensors, radios, hardware and firmware. Where there seems to be pain, that seems to be the game. Yet the real window into the IoT world is through our web-application named Green Brain. It’s Green Brain that our customers see daily, and their visits out to the paddocks to peer at our excellent hardware are virtually nil. So for old hardware engineers like myself, the IoT that we’ve so painstakingly built over these past five years has almost no impact on the customer, unless it fails and stops pushing up data. Yet this juxtaposition between on-ground hardware and in-cloud computing is entirely appropriate. Green Brain is the farmer’s shop-front into his on-farm measurements. So MEA is becoming ‘the Green Brain company’. Green Brain has been running for four years now, and over this past weekend, passed the half-billion record mark. I’ll just have to seek what comfort I can from Green Brain’s reflected glory…
  16. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    Hi Tim I'd certainly enjoy listening to your ideas, and will look you up next time I'm in Melbourne. But beyond just myself, there is a whole community of folk here interested in all aspects of IoT; perhaps you could reach us all by presenting a webinar on your experiences? Contact Tim Kannegieter or Geoff Sizer through this site to take this further. All the best Andrew
  17. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The IoT in the Outback I’m in sheep country in far northern South Australia, walking the dirt tracks across the saltbush plains through Yalpara, Minburra and Menton stations to the Waukaringa ruins and back. Out here life is at its most elemental. The IoT seems to exist on a different planet. There is no mobile phone coverage and therefore no Internet, power is generated at the homesteads by solar or diesel generators and all communications happen by UHF radio or satellite. Yet the measurement problems found out here are, if anything, even more pressing, exacerbated by the tyranny of distance and the difficulties that arise in servicing and maintaining equipment and stock. I pass windmills and more modern solar systems pumping underground bore water into storage tanks connected to stock watering troughs. Sheep trails vector in on these life-sustaining sources of water, making grazing of these vast areas possible. Knowing that water is available to remote flocks of sheep and cattle is a quintessentially Australian measurement problem. I carry no backpack out here; I’m travelling with camel-drawn wagons that hold my swag and camping gear and food and water for ten days. The hassle involved in camel-transport has to be experienced to be believed, but it’s what my country cousins like to do, and because the camels plod along fuelled and watered only off the saltbush and thorny scrub rather than requiring diesel fuel and expensive 4WDs. I’m invited along because these cameleers differ in one essential way from the early Australian explorers; they have a well-developed thirst for solar power to operate fridges, lights and torches, CPAP machines, and to charge mobile and satellite phones, cameras and GPS systems. And I’m the city cousin who knows how to build such gear and keep it working, as I have done. On these vast open plains, solar-powered satellite IoT devices will be the perfect solution, given only the prickly problems that need solutions at both ends of the chain. At the front-end, the problem is to provide affordable tank level monitoring at very low power levels and with zero maintenance for a decade or so. At the back-end, how do you effectively get data to folks who have such limited access to the Internet to check their data? So I entertain myself with these mental puzzles as I plod along for hour after hour while the country slowly unfolds around me. And as always, the solutions involve a multi-disciplinary approach that is the hallmark of so many IoT activities.
  18. Pirelli's smart tires - what's next?

    Ready, fire, aim!
  19. Vodaphone hiring - NB-IoT coming??

    If ever I saw a job description with a foot in both the engineering and marketing camps, that's it! I'd love to meet the person they hire; some pretty special qualities will be required with such a broad remit. I reckon Anat Efron from Thinxtra had those qualities (she was seriously impressive!), so I know there are people like that out there.
  20. Internet of Things - Business Models ...perhaps this article might help? https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/internet-things-business-models-mohit-agrawal
  21. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The IoT and the Need for Heroes One of the hardest things to do when giving birth to new technologies – such as the IoT – is simply ‘to keep going’. In this series of essays on my own decades-long journey to get to the IoT starting blocks, I’ve talked about all the things that can and did go wrong in product development and roll-out. What I haven’t touched on is where I found the inner fortitude to keep surmounting a seemingly endless series of obstacles. This is not something normally discussed in the engineering journals. Yet the history of invention gives plenty of clues as to the vital role of mentorship and ‘heroes’ for those few engineers who actually managed to create working products when so many others fell by the wayside. Brian Thomin at AMDEL in the 1970’s and later Brian O’Neill at Monitor Sensors in the 1980’s were early role models for me. These senior engineers answered all my dumb questions and never once made fun of my naivete. I learnt much from these guys, but I learnt most of all from Jim Williams of Linear Technology. Jim was an engineer’s engineer, and endlessly patient in offering help to younger engineers. (Jim had no computer or email, but you could always ring him up at Linear Tech and ask for advice, if you had the balls. Few of us did…) But most of all Jim wrote; over 350 publications relating to analog circuit design, including 5 books, 21 application notes for National Semiconductor, 62 application notes for Linear Technology, and over 125 articles for EDN Magazine. He reached a lot of engineers, even those of us down at the bottom of the world in Australia. Jim never talked down to his audience or tried to bamboozle them with pages of mathematics. He used humour and simple explanations to teach electronic fundamentals through the real language of working circuits. I never met the man (he died of a stroke aged 63 in 2011) but I read everything he wrote - sometimes four or five times - as I tried to figure out how deceptively simple circuits worked. Much of the heavy lifting of the IoT will be done by young engineers skilled in coding and software. Yet the sheer breadth of engineering experience needed to orchestrate IoT products is likely to be found only in senior engineers who have come the long hard route to a deep understandings of how to make things really work. And I’ll bet many of them had been lucky enough during their careers to find older engineering heroes whom they could admire and emulate. Thanks Jim!
  22. In recent news from Myriota, they have produced an excellent little video showcasing their new satellite IoT modem technology for use in remote area applications: - http://myriota.com/myriota-on-scope/
  23. Hi Tim I'm also wary of long manifestos that seem to have as their object the 'look at me!' objective. The IoT will take off only when there are customers. The best market research is a signed purchase order. As for manifestos, these are easy to spot: your brain goes to sleep mid-sentence. That happened just a half-a-paragraph into this press release. So I think you are on the right track here, by looking for the triggers that answer the questions of 'how indeed will IoT projects fire up?' That is, who's footing the bill? (because IoT product development is a darned expensive business) Cheers Andrew at MEA
  24. Telstra goes with Cat-M1 for IOT

    Thanks for the update, Tim I wonder when this CAT-M1 NB-IoT network will be switched on? Whew! Lucky we backed the Sierra Wireless horse for our Plexus product development; looks like SW is in there with Telstra getting in some practice runs in Tasmania (to shamelessly mix my sporting events metaphors!) Andrew
  25. What does it take to be an IoT engineer?

    The IoT and Fundamental Things Barrie Gilbert – inventor of the Gilbert cell found at the heart of all these potentially billions of IoT radios – was one of the most prolific electronics engineers of all time. For all those young engineers just starting out, and wondering how best to gain a toe-hold in this brave new world of the IoT, look no further than Barrie’s simple but powerful advice describing the source of his own inspiration, in an eight-page story entitled ‘Where Do Little Circuits Come From?’* “Discovering or inventing (- is there a difference?) new uses for a handful of transistors seems to be difficult for many young engineers entering the field of electronics today. Perhaps this is because they are taught that in confronting this Brave New Digital World they would be ill-advised to waste their precious college hours on such bygone and primitive notions as Kirchhoff’s and Ohm’s laws, or be concerned about such rudimentary concepts as the conservation of energy and charge, or bother to become adept in Laplace and Fourier analysis. The enlightened contemporary view is that everything of importance will be done in DSP sooner or later. Sadly, there is evidence to suggest that this message is increasingly being accepted. It is precisely the lack of these foundation skills, or even an awareness of the history of electronics, which makes it so hard for many new graduates to cope with component-level design, analog or digital.” “I get the feeling that the development of new circuit topologies is viewed by the newcomer to circuit design as something akin to magic. I’m thinking of those happy little tunes that weave just three or four active elements together in some memorable relationship, the themes, rich in harmonic possibilities, from which countless variations unfold. In these deceptively innocent and simple systems, cause and effect are inextricably bound: we are at the quantum level of electronic structure” [Barrie Gilbert, 1991] Very little of the hype surrounding the IoT touches on just where the inspiration will come from for the billions of new sensors that will connect our gadgets to the physical world. There is a sense that these are all already out there on silicon, and that nothing remains to be done except to wait for their prices to fall to next-to-nothing to allow the IoT to take off. In my own long journey through the world of environmental measurements to the IoT gadgetry that we build at MEA today, I’ve done my day job by managing product development and mentoring the young engineers under me, giving them all the interesting and challenging work while I’ve covered the paperwork. But in my own time – in cafes, planes and at the kitchen table – I’ve worked for decades on the fundamental principles of new IoT sensors based on a single op-amp, working with the very DNA of electronics to fashion new sensors. In a series if papers in the international IEEE Sensors journal, I’ve shown how these simplest of circuits can be made to measure stratification in urban reservoirs, the hydraulic conductivity and salinity of soils, and the sap flow and water stress within living plants. These days – down the back garden in my home lab – I’m happily entertaining myself finding new ways to create the ultra-pure sine waves needed to make electrical conductivity measurements in old-fashioned Wenner Arrays used to make the simplest of soil resistivity measurements. So my advice to young engineers wanting to ride the IoT wave is exactly that which Barrie Gilbert would give you; study the fundamentals and the history of your craft. *‘Analog Circuit Design – Art, Science and Personalities’, Jim Williams, editor. EDN Series for Design Engineers, 1991
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