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What is the Internet of Things?
Few people know that the term Internet of Things was first used as early as 1999. It grew in importance only in the last few years, though. Engineers, hobbyists and hardware users increasingly encounter IoT.
What does the term stand for? It's a relatively simple matter. So far, people have been the ones who generated the most Internet traffic. But the number of devices that can be connected to computers keeps growing. I don't mean laptop or phones, I mean for example household appliances. Everything from a refrigerator to a street light to an air-handling unit.
According to current estimations, Internet traffic generated by devices will soon be incomparably larger than traffic generated by humans.
The devices can collect enormous amounts of data that individually doesn't have much significance. But if, for example, every air filter had a small module capable of informing the world about its condition, then after accumulating all the information in the same cloud server we could easily create a map of pollution in the whole city.
These solutions will allow us to use collected information more efficiently, and more importantly they're going to be cheaper than conventional solutions. Devices are going to have modules capable of collecting and basic processing of data, and transferring it further. Really complicated operations will be done in dedicated cloud computing.
Because of the IoT trend, an increasing number of platforms dedicated to this design approach appears on the market. This time I decided to take a look myself at the product designed by Intel engineers.
The Intel Edison platform
The world heard about the Intel Edison platform during the CES 2014 trade show. The version presented there resembled an SD card on the outside, but appearances proved deceptive. The relatively small case had enough space for a dual-core processor, memory and radio modules, among other things. It was a real computer in an unprecedentedly small case. From this moment on, high computing power was going to be available even in wearables.
A few months later Intel introduced the next version of the new (as far as this company is concerned) product. The second version of Edison contains a number of important changes. The most important ones are a faster dual-core processor and a redesign of the shape of the whole device which in the end became a module smaller than a box of matches!
The heart of Edison is the Intel Atom processor manufactured at 22 nm. Inside it we find two cores operating with the frequency of 500 MHz. Additionally Edison is equipped with the Intel Quark coprocessor operating with the frequency of 100 MHz, which is responsible for the RTOS (ViperOS).
Intel Edison supports: Yocto Linux, Arduino, Python, Node.js, Wolfram
In addition to that, the SoC (System on Chip) module is equipped with 1 GB of integrated RAM and 4 GB of flash memory. A dedicated IoT platform has to communicate with external environment. Edison is equipped with Wi-Fi modules and Bluetooth 4 Low Energy. Obviously it also has a USB controller. All the necessary signals that allow for power supply and communication with the module go through the small (actually very small...) DF40 connector.
The above specifications classify Intel Edison as a groundbreaking dedicated IoT product, which is available to engineers as well as to all hobbyists. Personally I am the most impressed by the miniaturization of the whole module, which leaves the competitors far behind.
Intel Edison in practice
I wouldn't have taken on the task of talking about the platform if I didn't have the possibility to test it in practice. Therefore, for a while now I have had on my desk the aforementioned module and the starter kit. I'm not an enthusiast of Raspberry Pi, so I decided to use this opportunity to learn more about IoT.
We receive the main Intel Edison module together with a dedicated board in a relatively small cardboard box. After opening it, the main character of this article appears in front of our eyes:
It's hard to admit it because it doesn't sound very professional, but after the first contact with Edison one of the strongest conclusions was:
This module is really pretty, it would be interesting to use it as the heart of the next design.
After the aesthetic delight I decided to go back to being an engineer and I took interest in the further contents of the box. The kit I'm testing also includes a base board which facilitates utilizing the power of Edison. In this case it's an extension that is, among others, compatible with Arduino.
I quickly plugged the module in the connector and fixed it with spacers. The kit ready for use can be seen in the picture below. The huge number of pads used for testing the board is very impressive, which you can see for yourself:
On the base board, in addition to the terminals compatible with Arduino, we see buttons, a microSD card slot, USB connectors, LEDs and numerous other discrete components that assist them.
I'm going to talk more about programming the platform in the next article, but I will already reveal that, as you may guess, Edison is very easy to program in, among others, the Arduino language! So when you decide to buy this module you actually get a device that can be summed up as follows:
Intel Edison > Raspberry Pi + Arduino + SD card + WiFi module + Bluetooth module
Intel IoT Analytics Cloud
In order to make it easier for everyone to create IoT devices, Intel introduced its own free cloud Intel IoT Analytics. It's a friendly browser tool, thanks to which we can easily type the configuration of sensors and actuators connected to our Edison.
Everything is so intuitive that in a few hours, without much experience, you can create your first system. I don't want to go into technical details right now – there will be time for that later. As an example I'm going to show you a simple system that I built on the first day.
To the board I connected a photoresistor acting as a voltage divider, and an analog thermometer. Additionally I used Edison's built-in thermometer to measure the temperature of one of the cores. Every few seconds I sent the collected information to the cloud.
I could follow the results live from any place. Some example charts are below. The first one shows several days. The orange line represents the temperature of the core, the purple one is the temperature on the thermometer on the window frame outside, and the yellow one is the light intensity in the room.
The above view provided only some of the information. When we select a smaller time range, for example several hours, we see a significantly more precise picture:
I admit that I was surprised how easy it was to get such neat results of my work. It's important to point out that I obviously didn't have to write a single line of Python code!
This concludes the first part of this article. In the second part I will focus much more on programming. It might be hard to believe, but people who know the basics of Arduino described in our course will be able to run this kind of an Internet system. Which means I can definitely dispel the doubts brought in by the question mark in the title of the article.
In conclusion, Intel Edison has surprised me very positively so far. Right now I can point out only two flaws – a small connector that's going to be difficult to solder for hobbyists, and the price that varies around 290 zloty. But because of the capabilities of such a small platform I am convinced that there are people willing to invest this amount of money.
Currently the modules are available in Botland, among other places, and soon they're going to be available in TME too. You can find more information on the Intel iQ blog.
The next batch of information about the Intel Edison platform is going to be posted in the next few days. If you have any questions, I am obviously waiting for your comments, as always!