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M2M in embedded applications
 
 

Trends, components and integration

 

The telecommunication company Ericsson foresees 50 billion connected devices in the year 2020. Business intelligence company Berg Insight predicts that 97 million M2M, machine-to-machine, SIM cards for mobile communication will be used in Europe in 2015. These figures remain to be proven, but a fact is that the annual M2M growth is nearly 30% and all vertical markets are contributing.

 
One M2M based service in particular presents interesting details. Customers were reluctant to pay for the service at first. But when the manufacturer Volvo car corporation introduced monitor and control functionality in an app for smartphones nearly every second customer paid to add the service to the product.
 
I’m talking with Henrik Samuelsson, Product Marketing Manager at mobile network operator Telenor. We are discussing the eCall initiatiative in the automotive industry and Volvos experiences. The purpose of the eCall initiative was to save lives by rapid assistance to cars involved in traffic accidents. The idea was that, in case of an accident, the car should automatically call the nearest emergency service and transmit information about the position of the car and establish a voice call.
 

Increasing sales drastically

The Volvo on Call service is Volvo cars’ version of what’s outlined in the eCall initiative. An article on the Volvo news website describes a remarkable turnaround in sales and offers interesting knowledge about buying behavior. Volvo on Call was released ten years ago. Back then not even a quarter of a percent decided to add the feature to their new car.


From model year 2011 the possibility to switch on the engine pre-heater remotely was introduced and the buying percentage rose to 14%. Model year 2012 additional functionality was introduced in a smartphone application, app and now about 45% are willing to pay for it.
– Today Volvo’s customers are informed about where the car is parked, the fuel level in the tank, they can start the pre-heater remotely and monitor the temperature in the car from using the smartphone app, says Henrik Samuelsson.

 
 

The eCall initiative is told to cut the response time for the emergency service by about 50%. The intention is to use M2M technology to save lives and to reduce the severity of injuries from traffic accidents.
eCall information portal »

 

 
 
Johan Öberg, Head of Partner Marketing Management at mobile network operator TeliaSonera has seen patterns on the M2M market. The initial motivation for the technology is usually to improve efficiency in operation and business. Personal banking increased efficiency by allowing customers to pay the bills on the Internet. Fleet management solutions help in planning to maximize the use of the trucks and avoid standstills and empty journeys.  
– We’ve noticed that first phase usually includes introduction of the technology to improve efficiency and, successful in sales or not, it means that the technology and the mindset is in place for the next phase, and that I would call the business development phase, he says.
 

Connecting with the end user of the product

According to Johan Öberg, TeliaSonera, the possibilities for communication with the end user of the product is a crucial and important advantage and driving force behind the introduction of M2M in the long run, especially in the consumer market.
– One way of looking at it is that through the introduction of M2M, all of a sudden, there is an ability to communicate directly with the end users, says Johan Öberg.


The Volvo example shows that when the technology is introduced it’s all up to manufacturer, to add functionality appealing to customers, and the volumes will grow. So the eCall initiative eventually drove M2M evolution towards large volumes and the same can be said for an EU directive with the aim to promote energy savings. The directive implies that utility meters are to be read at least once a month or bi-monthly and that they are to provide monitoring and direct feedback on current energy consumption to the consumer. It means in practice that the readings of the meters have to be performed remotely.


Utility meters using the mobile network is counted in hundreds of thousands. The shear amount of individual SIM cards within M2M is challenging to mobile networks. Henrik Samuelsson, Telenor, describes the strain put upon on the mobile networks.
– The challenging aspect of M2M applications is most often the underlying signaling involved, he says. We experience a massive increase in signaling.


The signaling discussed is not the actual data transfer or voice communication involved in the use of mobile networks. It’s rather the communication used for the network to identify and keep track of the mobile terminals and to route calls and data traffic correctly.

 

Modules from Sierra Wireless

The driving forces and motivations for introduction of M2M are many. My question is about resistance and obstacles.
– Sometimes there is a tendency to look for new technology to solve a problem instead of using what’s already available, says Johan Öberg, TeliaSonera.


Hans Andersson is a Strategic Business Unit Manager at Acal BFi Nordic and he knows about what’s already available. Acal BFi Nordic is Hectronic’s sister company since one year now. The responsibilities of Hans Andersson include sales and support for wireless modules from the manufacturer Sierra Wireless with a product offer including the fastest module in the world (4G/LTE, 100 Mbps) as well as the smallest (2G/GPRS, 15mm x 18mm).


The strategic partnership between Sierra Wireless and sixth biggest silicon vendor Qualcomm (Gartner, December 2011) go way back. Technology and products from Sierra Wireless lead the way for wireless functionality in consumer products. Hardware and software are reused in the industrial versions of the products that typically have a wider operating temperature range and more I/O.
–  The strategy is to use proven technology and products manufactured in large volumes for the consumer market and to convert them into industrial products, he says.

 
The AirPrime family of modules from Sierra Wireless includes the intelligent SL and Q series characterized by a rich set of I/O, an embedded OS optimized for hosting the application in the module and external hos OS support including Linux, Windows, Windows Embedded, Windows CE/Mobile and Android.
 
The Sierra Wireless AirLink Configurable Intelligent Gateways are designed to meet the needs of Industrial and Enterprise customers.
The AirCard USB modems provide mobile broadband connectivity to any computer with a USB port.
 

The relationships between Sierra Wireless and major mobile operators worldwide are vital. The certifications for wireless modules include operator approvals necessary for M2M products to reach the global market.


Industrial customers of Sierra Wireless products are supported through the AirVantage M2M cloud platform. It’s available through a web portal and includes development tools and a self-care operating portal enabling among other things remote firmware/application upgrades and modem/network status monitoring.

 

eSIM for industrial requirements and large volumes

Industrial applications typically have some additional and separate requirements compared to consumer products.  It’s not the least the case with SIM cards. As volumes grow into thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands in an industrial application, it means that SIM card handling, management and reliability become crucial issues.


The eSIM is an alternative to the SIM card and addresses these issues. An eSIM is the functionality of a SIM card but the package is not a piece of plastic but a surface mounted, robust component with a wide operating temperature range. eSIM are supplied on reels as any other electronic component.
– eSIM has been on the market a while but it hasn’t been widely used until now, says Hans Andersson.  


The quality if the SIM solution is included in the requirements for certification of the system. Products from Sierra Wireless are certified in their capacity of wireless modules. Thus the work to certify the system is easier. The responsibility for certification of M2M solutions in the EU is lies on the product owner and involves testing, documentation and a signed declaration of conformity.
– Integrating the module in the system one need to guarantee that the system fulfills certain requirements for example that it doesn’t emit RF disturbance.

 

Integrating M2M systems

Hectronic has experience from M2M system integration, among other things from a couple of fleet management applications including managing the e-type approval process applicable in automotive. We argue that the choice of wireless module is generally not about picking preferred properties from a datasheet with a list of functionalities, or about getting enough performance. It’s most often not about hosting the modules on high-end computer boards either. Low-end X86 processors, ARM or even the processor platform and operating system integrated in the module itself are enough to host the application. The module choice is rather about the communication interface used and the decision influences strongly the ease of which the system is integrated. 
 
 

Click to enlarge the picture

 

The H1122 Vehicle PC was originally developed by Hectronic for Fara ASA, the dominant supplier of IT solutions for public transportation in the Nordic countries. H1122 has a rich set of standard interfaces for flexibility and easy integration. Wireless communication interfaces included are quad band GSM/GPRS or GSM/GPRS/EDGE and enhanced data rate Bluetooth for wireless audio headset or wireless connectivity.
H1122 product page »


Product management at Fara ASA was clear on what they expected from the development project. The input to Hectronic engineers was to avoid proprietary solutions, choose standard hardware and to use only existing operating systems and open interfaces. Hectronic took on the challenge and based the design on a COM module in the ETX form factor to be able to integrate existing hardware modules and designs on the ISA bus.

Read more from a case study about the project »

 
 

Our hard earned experience is that a preferable choice of interface is one that has been around for a while and is widely used. That’s an interface likely to have proven software drivers available for a selection of operating systems. A suggestion is also to pick a familiar interface, one that you have prior experience with to ease the system integration.


Wireless modules are mounted on the computer board either by soldering, in a socket or a contact board-to-board. Soldered modules are cheaper and in many ways the more robust choice. Socket or board-to-board mounting adds scalability and flexibility to the system. Suppliers often offer different types of modules mounted in the same type of socket.


Socket and board-to-board mounting add yet other advantages if the final product needs to be available in versions using a variation of wireless modules. Manufacturing and stock-keeping of one main hardware with sockets and contacts is cheaper than the case with numerous complete hardware versions. The different versions needed are simply realized during final assembly by adding the requested modules and downloading the relevant software to complete the product version.

 

Deciding upon module and communication interface

Typically wireless modules are offered in different interface versions. Some have multiple interfaces integrated. Serial port using TTL logic levels and USB are the most common. From our experiences in development using midrange and high end ARM and X86 processor platforms SPI is not the first hand choice. Hectronic learned the hard way that SPI may be difficult to use.

On the other hand SPI and I2C are common and useful interfaces in a lot of M2M applications, for instance sensor networks, based on microcontrollers or even hosting the application in the processor in the wireless module itself. SPI has advantages when power consumption is crucial.

That can’t be said for USB. USB on the other hand is fast enough for high-speed wireless data communication modules like 3G and 4G. UART for instance is not fast enough for UMTS at 7.2 Mbit/s. If the communication speed is to the lower side, as for GPS, a rudimentary interface is sufficient, for instance UART or I2C. USB generally is a favorable choice. It’s a common, well-known and widely spread interface. Integration is easy due to high-quality drivers and an easily routed single differential pair. If you are using a highly integrated small processor with UART, a serial TTL interface would be the best choice.

Anyway, interface evaluation is vital to the success of M2M development projects. Hectronic evaluates all drivers used in our projects. So should you.
 
 

Click to enlarge the picture

 

The table shows typical COTS modules for wireless technologies, their respective areas of use and the interfaces typically available to integrate the module in an embedded system.

 
 
To developers not yet experienced with Linux or Windows development in embedded systems, the amount of integrated functionality and ready-made software already available on the Internet can be surprising.

The gpsd software is a neat example. gpsd handles the communication with the GPS module and supports NMEA 2000. NMEA 2000 is a standard for serial communication in marine electronics governed by the National Marine Electronics Associations. The majority of GPS modules on the market support the relevant parts in NMEA 2000. The gpsd software saved Hectronic and the customer lots of time in one of our projects. The module was kick-started in no-time and started to deliver coordinates. The system integration was quick and easy.
 

Certifying the M2M system

Wireless communication integrated in any system runs a risk of EMC complications. The straight forward strategy to deal with it is to choose wireless modules among the ones already certified according to the regulations for the application at hand. Regulations applicable are determined by the area of use, the particular wireless technology applied and in which countries the product will be used.


It’s probably not embedded industrial applications that will make up the majority of the 50 billion connected devices that Ericsson talks about for 2020. However the growth is there and present in all vertical markets. It’s well worth the time and effort to evaluate how your products, services and business can benefit from M2M.


The value added could be making your customer’s processes more efficient from the information and overview offered remotely. Maybe the point is to use M2M to establish a closer relationship with the end user. Hectronic and Acal BFi Nordic are in any case your partners to pursue the discussions and we are happy to help out in supplying the components and modules, developing the computer platform and integrating the system into an M2M enabled product for the future.

 

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