IoT Development with Wireless Communications: Getting Started

Kyle Sporre, RF and Hardware Engineering Manager
September 20, 2018

Embarking on an IoT development project presents many questions that need to be answered — whether you have extensive experience in machine-to-machine communications or you are just starting out. This enormously fast growing field offers a growing selection of supporting components and connectivity methods, and for developers it can feel like the landscape changes daily. In this post we’ll lay some groundwork to help make sense of it all, and talk about the key things to consider as you are preparing to launch an IoT development project.

While we may not be able to completely mitigate the overwhelm factor, we can certainly help to highlight the important considerations that drive decision making and provide resources for getting answers.

Wireless Technology in IoT Product Design

At the heart of the explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT) and the Industrial IoT (IIoT) is wireless technology, made possible via RF or radio frequency. This technology enables devices to communicate with another without being physically connected. With its roots in the early 20th century, RF technology is not new. But it has grown to include cellular devices and other advances, keeping in stride with an enormous demand for new consumer and industrial applications.

Technological enhancements that support this incredible growth include the speed and bandwidth of the underlying networks, extended battery life of IoT devices, broader capabilities of wireless communication protocols, and more secure management of devices and networks. These advancements have allowed a significant number of industries to replace expensive, and often unreliable, wired communication with wireless communication.

Wireless communication in smart city applicationsMillions of miniature wireless devices — sensors and radio modules — now gather and send data in a vast array of environments from smart cities to manufacturing facilities and other industrial settings, and deliver that data faster than you can blink.

To manage it all, cloud applications such as Digi Remote Manager® allow network administrators to monitor the health and security of their devices from a central console, update the firmware of many devices with one command, automate security monitoring, and get notified quickly in the event of a problem anywhere those devices are deployed, worldwide.

That said, how do you get started designing and developing a successful IoT or IIoT product? While there’s far too much to cover in a single blog post, we can talk about some of the key things you will need to know if you are going to develop a product incorporating wireless technology.

Oh, and we have exciting news: Digi has an upcoming guide to all the concepts and important considerations in wireless communications for IoT product design. Sign up now to get notified of its release.



Key Considerations for Wireless Design in IoT

Launching a wireless design project can be daunting. You need on-staff expertise, supporting professional services, or both, to define your requirements, design and develop your IoT product, and ensure that it will pass testing and certification to meet your time-to-market promise. You will need to carefully assess the costs involved in building your product against your go-to-market pricing and ROI goals. And you will need to ensure that you have a strategy for secure device operation.

The considerations vary by the type of application, and there is no one-size-fits-all process. For example, an industrial tank sensor and a wearable device that reports heart metrics are both IoT applications, but with very different requirements. However, in most cases, the key considerations can be summarized as follows, regardless of the product parameters and its intended use.

Product Requirements

Be sure to take time to assess all of your product requirements. It is far too common for teams to launch the design process without taking the critical first step of accurately identifying the market needs, which can be a costly mistake. Some of the considerations in this phase include:

  1. Market and use case: What is the intended use for the finished product? How much data does it need to process, and how fast? Are you solving a real business problem with the product? Time to market is also a key consideration, as market opportunities can be short lived before other competitors fill the space.
  2. Target price: How will you price your product against any competing products? You want to ensure that you can build sell your product within that market’s price expectations.
  3. Physical placement: How and where will the product be used? For example, will your IoT product be placed in a stable location, such as a medical facility, warehouse or industrial tank? Or will it be on a moving vehicle such as a bus, or perhaps worn by a cyclist or runner?
  4. Geographic location: Where in the world do you want to sell the product? This will affect several design decisions, your entire go-to-market strategy, and the types of certifications required.
Wireless Connectivity and Range

There are several questions to answer in the process of determining your IoT product connectivity requirements:

  1. How will the product connect and transmit data? Will the product have access to a reliable wireless connection, and will it need to communicate over Wi-Fi or cellular for best performance? This decision has several ramifications. For example, a Wi-Fi network will need a gateway for data routing, and local technical support personnel, while a cellular network is maintained by the carrier and requires less maintenance, but it will require a data plan. Note that you can also enable both Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity.
  2. Will the deployment location have structures or objects that can obstruct the signal, or will it be deployed in a remote area?  For example, are you developing an industrial IoT product to be deployed deep in a mine or on a remote oil derrick? If so, you will need a strategy for managing connectivity issues.
  3. What type of antenna will you need to support your connectivity requirements? Antenna requirements are based on several factors including the wireless range needed, size of the device, its location and placement, the radio hardware and wireless communication protocol, and whether the device is indoors or outdoors.
Battery Life

Determining whether your IoT product will be wireline powered or battery powered is a significant decision and involves several considerations. The type and location of the device will help to determine whether it should be rechargeable, or whether it is more important to design for proactive battery management to support long battery life. For example, you would expect to regularly recharge most cellular devices, such as wearables, but a device that monitors a remote industrial tank would require a battery that needs to be changed out infrequently. Another key consideration in IoT development is that some wireless protocols are better suited to battery-powered devices than others.

Certifications and Time-to-market

Wireless products have certification requirements based on the region(s) in the world in which they are deployed. For example, in the U.S., wireless products must pass FCC and cellular certifications. Other regions have different requirements, and you will need to meet them all if you want to market your product worldwide, or in multiple regions. This process can be arduous if you have not planned and designed your product with knowledge of the various certification requirements in mind. On the other hand, planning for certification, and even starting with pre-certified communication modules, can dramatically reduce the time, cost and pain involved in moving through the certification process.

Building your product using a pre-certified module and designing your product for rapid certification can also help speed your time-to-market. IoT product developers often struggle with the question of whether to build their product from the ground up or start with pre-built components. If you have plenty of time and your application’s end-user cost is more important than time-to-market, you may want to build. If you need to get to market quickly to release a competitive or in-demand product, building your IoT application based on pre-certified modules will likely give you more advantage.

Launching Your Product Design

Once you have determined your IoT product requirements in detail, and ensured that you have a feasible product that meets a market requirement, you are finally ready to embark upon your product design. The electrical design of a wireless product includes the layout of your PCB, considerations around isolation of your RF signal, impedance matching, types and locations of ports and connectors, and power supply. To make these determinations, you will need to have an experienced RF engineer and mechanical engineer on staff, or have the ability to consult with a professional RF design services team to create the board layout and ensure component decisions match the product requirements.

As a best practice, consider performing a feasibility study to ensure your design plan is going to work, and start by prototyping the product to learn about any obstacles you may encounter in your final design. Resolving these issues in the prototyping phase of your project can save an enormous amount of time and cost, and ensure that you get to market on schedule.

Design and Build Resources

Digi offers a wide range of solutions for every aspect of your wireless product design process, from a complete suite of product components, to professional design services that can support your design, feasibility, certification, testing, security and deployment requirements, to documentation and Knowledge Base articles. To learn more about Digi’s end-to-end solutions for IoT development, contact Digi today.

>>Be sure to sign up to get notified of the release of our upcoming guide, Wireless Communication Basics: A conceptual guide to RF technology for IoT.