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HomeArticlesBroadcast TechnologyThe Opportunities IoT Holds for Imaging Technology
Monday, 10 August 2015 12:43

The Opportunities IoT Holds for Imaging Technology

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Having gained a great deal of media attention over the last year, the Internet of Things (IoT) has been heralded as the next stage in the development of a fully connect world. Through it all sorts of useful information will be passed to and from different types of machinery and equipment. The following article will look at the key role that image sensing is destined to play in the progression of IoT, as it moves from the concept phase into something of actual substance. 

How great an impact will IoT have over the next few years? The analysts all claim it is massive and the big companies are doubling down on a synthesis of devices, big data and cloud integration. This opens the doors to not just tons of data capacity but the ability of leveraging this data to make smarter decisions. In 2008 the number of things connected to the Internet exceeded the number of people on Earth and that is still less than 1% of all physical things in the world today.  This year, 75% of the global population will have access to the Internet. Cisco predicts 25 billion devices will be connected by 2015 and 50 billion by 2020. Most of the future growth in wireless technology will also be largely influenced by IoT. At the heart of this exponential growth is device interaction across various industry segments. An industry wide wireless standard is fundamental to the success of IoT. Today, standard groups are gearing up to release specifications around various communication protocols. This is the year we will see them mature and evolve in products hitting the market. 

Prospective applications for IoT imaging

First of all, let’s look specifically at where cameras are likely to be used as part of an IoT implementation. 

There are a plethora of potential applications to be considered, here are just a few examples. 

Home security systems - Through IoT implementation, access can be gained to home video surveillance systems via smartphones. As a result users have full exposure to the identity of someone entering their home. This technology also enables the introduction of ‘smart locks’ and ‘smart door bells’, with cameras being used to track individuals – allowing them to enter or restricting access where applicable. 

Lighting control systems - IoT means that illumination of home or office environments will no longer be reliant on a dumb on/off switch. Using the system-on-chip functionality of the sensor, useful information can be derived for lighting control. Image analytics help detect motion by measuring sudden light level changes which in turn can be used for light control. IoT lighting has also found its way into parking garages - making them greener, safer and more efficient.

Drones - Thanks to a marked reduction in the costs associated with such equipment, an explosive market for drones is now being witnessed. These have the capacity to fulfill all manner of different tasks provided they have adequate imaging capabilities. In relation to agriculture, for instance, they can be deployed to look for leaks in irrigation infrastructure or for the surveying crops and livestock. They have been of incredible value in disaster related sites as well, providing real time assessment of the situation on the ground.  A large number of drones now feature either built-in or attachable cameras, providing images of all the in-flight action. They have the ability to either store images on an SD card or provide live streaming to a mobile device

Remote patient monitoring - This is a technology to monitor patients outside of a traditional clinical facility. It leads to increased care levels, providing peace of mind to both the patient and their family. At the same time patients can maintain a degree of freedom and independence improving their quality of life. Imaging technology coupled with power efficient wireless technologies brings major benefits in this field. Image senor devices could carry out passive monitoring, ensuring that the subject is moving around between different rooms, etc. rather than just staying sedentary. This could be done in a totally non-intrusive manner, without any detailed image data being captured, purely enough to know which room the person is currently in. In other applications, camera systems are being developed that can be attached to baby’s cribs to monitor if the baby is asleep/awake. Advanced image analytics can also be used to monitor vital signs of newborns.

Handheld devices - The advent of IoT is encouraging inclusion of features such as miniature microscopes and spectrometers inside next generation handheld devices. This clearly opens up a host of possibilities for imaging technology. These spectrometers can provide, as an example, the chemical makeup of what you are eating. You can get all the information on the amount of carbs, the sugar content and other nutritional data helping you to make smarter decisions about your nutritional input. 

Other applications - Basically any application scenario where imaging data needs to be acquired from a remote location on a regular basis while avoiding heavy financial investment is likely to warrant some form of IoT implementation. This could be anything from industrial control to the monitoring of wildlife populations, from domestic appliances to smart metering systems. The expense of putting staff out in the field to do these tasks is often simply too great to be justified, but through IoT imaging a much more cost-effective approach can be taken. 

Dynamics effecting IoT imaging deployments

Several developments have occurred over the last few years that will prove advantageous to IoT imaging and allow its incorporation into a broad spectrum of applications. The image sensors now being produced are:

More compact - This makes them considerably easier to integrate into system designs, especially where there are space constraints to be taken into account.

Higher resolution - With provision thus available to capture larger quantities of data using advanced pixel technologies.

Improved sensitivity - Enabling better accuracy to be witnessed. 

Overall expense - Only five years ago image sensor cost would have been to some degree prohibitive, now improvements in manufacturing techniques and processes have led to products entering the market with lower price tags.     

Communication standards

There are a vast number of competing communication protocols deployed in various IoT applications. For wired implementations this will be through established protocols like USB, Ethernet, etc. Wireless interfacing is more a mixed bag - with protocols such as Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), ZigBee and Z-Wave, as well as emerging ones like Thread (a new standard based on the 802.15.4 protocol which is being promoted by companies like Google/Nest) and 6LoWPan (for IP version 6 over a low powered wireless personal area network, again based on 802.15.4).

 One of the biggest challenges in the world of IoT is interoperability – the ability of devices from various vendors to exchange data and communicate. In many cases these devices have not traditionally communicated with each other. In additional to centrally controlling these devices, it involves writing special applications making the devices do things together that could never have been achieved alone. Addressing this challenge is the main goal of various standard groups that define specifications and testing procedures to insure interoperability between devices. There are at least four efforts underway in 2015 to bring some order to the world of IoT. This is a mammoth task with a vast and evolving space. The AllSeen Alliance is a consortium dedicated to enabling and driving the widespread adoption of products, systems and services that support the Internet of Everything with an open, universal development framework supported by a vibrant ecosystem and thriving technical community. It was started as part of the AllJoyn framework and now is expanding with contributions from other member companies. It is backed by giants like Qualcomm, Microsoft, Sony and LG, with just under a 100 members.

The Open Internet Consortium (OIC) will be an open specification that anyone can implement and is easy for developers to use. It will include IP protection & branding for certified devices (via compliance testing) and service-level interoperability. It is backed by companies like Cisco, Intel, MediaTek and Samsung. It has approximately 40 members.

The Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC) was founded in March 2014 to bring together the organizations and technologies necessary to accelerate growth of the Industrial Internet by identifying, assembling and promoting best practices. Membership includes small and large technology innovators, vertical market leaders, researchers, universities and governments. Its membership includes Cisco, AT&T, Intel, GE, and IBM. It has over 100 members currently.

With an explosion of vision based devices, the CMOS imager has become the essential sensor of the modern era. Cameras can track human motion, detect objects, identify faces, read distant text, reconstruct a scene in 3D, and even take a pulse.

In many cases engineers looking to add an image sensing dimension to their IoT have little, if any, prior experience. Even more seasoned image system design engineers will often need to keep to tight deadlines and, as result, not be able to devote the time and resources necessary to develop an IoT imaging system from scratch. Sourcing an off-the-shelf solution will therefore be preferable.

The IoTVDK reference design, from ON Semiconductor’s Image Sensor Group, effectively provides engineers a complete IoT-ready imaging solution. Powered via a MicroUSB connection or using a single cell Lithium ion battery, it has the capacity to carry out full resolution video streaming at 30frames/sec over its WiFi and Ethernet communication interfaces. In addition, it has support for data transfer via Bluetooth (BLE 4.0), plus mobile platform application program interfaces (APIs).

At the heart of this reference design is an AR0230 2MP image sensor, it also contains a Gainspan WiFi module (supporting 802.11n). The processing of image data is done by DM368 digital media SoC, with an ARM9 core. Support is given for all 3 of the main cloud platforms (AWS, Azure and Google Cloud). The built-in PIR sensor permits smart video streaming, so that the system video streaming only takes place when movement has been detected. Thanks to the level of functionality incorporated into this reference design, engineers are provided with a comprehensive imaging solution that allows ‘out of the box’ integration. 

Conclusion

The Internet is clearly one of the most powerful/impactful creations in all of human history. IoT is its next evolutionary step. We have already seen simple yet ground-breaking gadgets completely disrupt the market. At the core of these gadgets are smart and connected cameras, enabled by state-of-the-art image sensing technology. Improved pixel performance in CMOS image sensors enables light sensitivity to be on a par with CCD image sensors.  Smaller size, lower power and low cost CMOS image sensors have enabled a whole new class of devices and the rapid adoption of CMOS image sensors in myriad applications. Driven by image sensor technology, cameras allow us to be more connected to our devices, our cars, our homes and most importantly to the people who matter most to us. CMOS image sensors provide a window to your life that you never knew existed.

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