Bottom-Up IoT Innovation Thriving

I experienced some of the vitality, sophistication and breadth of activity in open hardware and associated software and comms this week at the first Cambridge Internet of Things Practitioners Night meetup. That demonstrated how a rapid expansion...


I experienced some of the vitality, sophistication and breadth of activity in open hardware and associated software and comms this week at the first Cambridge Internet of Things Practitioners Night meetup.

That demonstrated how a rapid expansion of IoT enabling infrastructure is welling from the bottom-up, and that it's just a not-too-long matter of time before high-impact applications start to appear.

Among the things that struck me talking to people at the meetup this week were:

  • Bright young people are talking and engaging much more with open hardware
  • There's a mix of people of all ages and experience levels engaged in this area and across sectors
  • When up against the limitations of current technologies the brightest are building from scratch. That includes operating software, designing circuits, and inventing middleware to exploit fully and efficiently the new open hardware environment 
  • Crowd-funding is beginning to kick in as a successful alternative to looking for angel investment or venture capital funding for open hardware innovation
  • The cost of robust IoT application enablers is plummeting - with high powered Internet connectable boards and components- the nuts and bolts of IoT - costing a fraction of what the industry has become accustomed to.
  • The recession is forcing young technologists to do things in new ways and come up with novel capabilities
This Cambridge event attended by over 50 people was organised by (left to right) Laura James, Stew McTavish and Rob van der Linden, with Matthew Pearce the founder of the Cambridge IoT Histon meetups.

It's worth dwelling on a few of the various exhibits at the event as they demonstrate the sort of things that are going on at the coalface of bottom up IoT activity.

Building the Nuts and Bolts for IoT deployment: Ciseco:
Nottingham-based Ciseco epitomises the type of opportunity opening up for small companies around IoT. This 6-person company (which was just 2 people this May) is to grow to 15 in March. Its products cost around £10-£20 and it has 4000 customers ranging from the military to school children and has already shipped over 500,000 parts.

It has just raised nearly £21,000 through KickStarter crowd-funding (£6,000 over its £15,000 target) for further development of Eve, its open hardware hub that connects diverse wireless devices to each other and to the Web. It plugs into the Raspberry Pi (the £30 low cost open hardware computer).

Miles James Hodkinson, Ciseco's founder, says he wanted to use custom hardware but it was too expensive so Ciseco designed and built its own hardware.

Ciseco's sub-£10 XRF radio sensors are being used attached to remote cameras in Africa to relay pictures of animals via Irridium satellite radio for a major zoo, and are also being used with plug-in air fresheners to tell consumers when the fragrance runs out - prompt refills stand to save the air freshener manufacturer millions of pounds a year.

Signpost: Secure end-to-end Personal Cloud for Individuals
The collaborative Signpost project demonstrated how individuals should soon be able to have their own secure personal cloud with end-to-end networking. Signpost skips the middleboxes (like NATS and mobile gateways) and uses DNSSEC (secure DNS) technology via OpenMirage, an open source heavy duty secure operating system built from scratch.

This is a joint Cambridge University, Nottingham University and Horizon Digital Economy Research (the Nottingham-based £40m venture set up in 2009 by Research Councils UK).

This provides people with a secure personal cloud linked directly to the Internet via a Raspberry Pi computer or I-phone app with no need to go through proprietary ID regimes. The open source operating software is available in early March for developers and the first package is set to be for the Raspberry Pi for summer 2013. An early aim is to enable people to plug the package into their TV sets and access the Internet direct via the TV through their own personal domain.

To ensure security the project's Anil Madhavapeddy said they had to build Open Mirage from scratch, using formal methods to ensure security. That's because operating systems designed for desktops are too insecure and inefficient. He says that OpenMirage would need just 200Kbytes to deploy an infrastructure into the Cloud that would take 1 Gbyte using traditional technology. “It's seamless globally, secure, scalable globally and a neutral way of dealing with ID,” he said.

Other Applications
Examples of the diverse range of interconnectedness activity at the Meetup include:

Berg's Little Printer - slightly bigger than a Rubik Cube this enables you to gather information such as news feeds from your smart phone and collate and print them out on cash-till sized paper at defined times. Cost: £199. This was designed and built by Berg, a design consultancy.

Novalia: highlighted the newspaper that has electronics (capacitive touch tool and a low powered Bluetooth connection) printed into newspaper so that simply touching an item in the printed paper can generate sounds and video related to the printed story. Dr Kate Stone, Managing Director of Novalia, said these electronics can be printed in bulk on large presses, such as off-set litho. Following many trials (many in the US) it will ship by the summer next year marking the culmination of £900,000 investments over the past five years.

Electric IMP small board to internet-enable things - has an ARM Cortex M3 microprocessor, wifi and I/O comprising 6 versatile pins.

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