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What can mend the broken Internet of Things?

08 Dec 2015  | Charles Murray

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An expert told engineers at UBM's Designers of Things conference that the Internet of Things (IoT) is fragmented. To fix it, IoT needs ARM-based field programmable gate array (FPGA) technology.

Ryan Cousins, CEO of krtkl Inc. (pronounced "critical"), said that the rapid pace of development on the Internet is exposing the weaknesses of 15 billion connected products because the hardware can't keep up with the software.

"If your product is connected to the Internet, the software is going to get updated every six months or every year," he said. "But the hardware is always fixed. Once it ships, it ships. You're stuck with it."

Cousins added that outdated hardware creates a window of opportunity for competitors, which can improve on it, while the original developer often lacks the wherewithal to make substantial changes.

Ryan Cousins

Ryan Cousins of krtkl Inc. told engineers at UBM's Designers of Things conference that IoT devices will increasingly need programmable hardware. (Source: Design News)

The solution, he said, is the use of ARM-based FPGA system-on-chips (SoCs). Products such as Xilinx's Zynq-7000 and Altera's Cyclone V intertwine the MCU and FPGA, enabling the hardware to be adaptable to market and consumer demands. In essence, software updates on such systems become hardware updates.

"When you then add connectivity to the equation, you end up with a piece of hardware that can be fundamentally changed in the field," Cousins said. "You're not stuck with what you originally shipped out the door."

Other benefits for developers include design re-use, code portability and security. "Because the hardware architecture isn't fundamentally fixed and known to any outside parties, it becomes extremely difficult for them not only to reverse engineer but to invade and take over the product," Cousins said.

He cited examples of applications that would be well-suited for use of ARM-based FPGAs, including industrial robots, pumps for medical devices, electric motor controllers, imaging systems and machine vision systems. He also said the field of potential applications is growing.

"Traditionally, it's been relegated to things like aerospace, defence and high-end industrial applications," Cousins said. "But lately it's been getting more democratised and affordable for the average person, whether it's an entrepreneur or a student."

He drew on krtkl's experience as an IoT hardware company to make the point that many connected products are vulnerable to the hardware-software mismatch dilemma, especially in manufacturing, healthcare and retail settings. His company offers a flexible platform called Snickerdoodle that addresses the problem and is suited to mechatronics applications.

The use of an FPGA-based solution makes sense for the OEM, as well as the consumer, Cousins added. "You're more likely to buy a product that's relatively future-proofed going forward than you are to buy one that has to be replaced in a couple of years."

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