From mind to market: hardware platforms for creative IoT application development

January 05, 2017 // By Amir Sherman
Professional teams developing embedded systems like Internet of Things (IoT) devices typically focus on innovating at the application level, to differentiate their end products in the marketplace. At the other end of the spectrum, independent makers are an increasingly important source of fresh ideas that have potential to become disruptive products.

In either case, the traditional embedded development flow that involves bringing up basic hardware to host the application can present a barrier to success. A lack of hardware-design skills, or the finance or manufacturing resources to build a prototype, can prevent great applications from ever advancing beyond the concept stage.
Component suppliers and some innovative distributors have identified the potential to unleash application-design talent from across the spectrum, by making available flexible hardware platforms with all the functionality developers need to quickly start developing a prototype application. A suitable board needs to provide a superset of features relevant to the types of applications that will be developed. Prototyping IoT applications, for example, will probably require at least a low-power microcontroller, connectivity such as Ethernet, USB, or wireless support like Bluetooth® Smart or Wi-Fi, and various sensors such as temperature, motion, pressure, or ambient light.


Beware following the crowd
A large variety of community computing boards are already in the market, and some have become popular prototyping platforms among makers and professional developers. Some, like the Raspberry Pi, are not originally conceived as development platforms, and have become popular almost by default. One of the main drawbacks of these types of boards is that key parts such as the host processor are not ideally suited to some applications – such as power-constrained IoT devices – and may not be easily purchased on the open market. This can restrict opportunities to customise the hardware after the application has been proved and the investment is available to take the product to market.

The 96Boards initiative is an example of a concept created to overcome such limitations and deliver all the flexibility developers need to realise their new product ideas in any way they want. There are three 96Boards specifications, each aimed at key embedded market sectors. The boards are based on ARM® Cortex®-A Microprocessors and CortexRx/Mx Microcontrollers, which can be ordered directly from the manufacturer or a distributor. Moreover, developers can leverage their familiarity with this industry-standard 32-bit and 64-bit cores, as well as existing, proven code. In addition, standard form factors are specified, which simplifies designing them into the end product, if required.