Editor's Letter Insights

Sensors and Embedded at Home Together

Written by Jeff Child

In many ways my trip to California in late June was like coming home again. I’ve traveled to that area of the country more than any other over years. There’s really no other place where you can zip around in a rental car and visit so many technology companies—all a short drive from one another. This recent trip was to attend the Sensors Expo show in San Jose. A new twist on the show was the launch of a new Embedded Technologies Expo and Conference co-located and sharing an exhibition hall with Sensors Expo. The Embedded Expo’s 53 exhibitors added to Sensors’ over 350 made for a significant event. There’s a natural synergy between sensor technology and general embedded technologies, so it was certainly a smart move to co-locate.

I was particularly pleased to see that PICMG was exhibiting (or the PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group if the acronym doesn’t ring a bell). PICMG is a not-for-profit consortium of companies and organizations that collaboratively develop open specifications. As the group’s name implies, since its birth those specifications have revolved around PCI, with the PCI Express-based COM Express, for example, among its many specs. In recent years, PICMG has ramped up its efforts on broader systems-oriented specs in keeping with today’s market demands—the centerpiece being the organizations’ work on Industrial IoT (IIoT) specifications.

Sensors play a big part of those efforts, and PICMG took great advantage of their presence at Sensors Expo by performing live a demonstration at their booth to showcase its efforts to create plug-and-play sensor interoperability for IIoT. The demo was comprised of three main components: (1) a control and visualization station, (2) IP-enabled smart sensors and binary-enabled smart sensors, and (3) a multilingual smart sensor gateway. Tied with the demo was a Smart Sensors Challenge whereby PICMG invited anyone with a 4-20 mA sensor to come to their booth to take the challenge.

The visualization station was responsible for monitoring and control of the factory installation. It was implemented with standard hardware and used IT technologies to gather data and take actions. PICMG is collaborating with the DMTF to extend their Redfish management and control specification for use in Industrial IT.

On a factory floor, hundreds (or thousands) of sensors and actuators gather information and alter operation under the control of the control/visualization station. In order for these sensors to participate, they must be able to communicate over the installation’s IP network. Some autonomous sensors (or sensors with higher levels of functionality) may do this directly though their own dedicated ethernet port. These IP-Enabled smart sensors plug directly into the installation’s network and present themselves as micro-servers of the PICMG/ DMTF Redfish sensor data model.

PICMG’s CTO Doug Sandy at the show remarked that other, generally lower-cost, sensors may present sensor data in binary fashion over a serial data link. “This greatly reduces the cost of the associated controller yet requires an extra gateway in the system to translate from the binary coding to the PICMG/ DMTF Redfish format on the IP network. Current PICMG initiatives include binary coding of the data model and the operation of the multi-lingual gateway, and a small form-factor ‘Postage-Stamp’ module for creating sensor endpoints,” said Sandy.

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As sensors were added to PICMG’s booth demonstration system, the sensors automatically reported their capabilities to the system without need for reprogramming. Enabling plug-and-play capability over the IP network is a central feature of PICMG’s IIoT scheme. The PICMG IIoT network architecture model, currently beginning development, will not dictate specific hardware to be used. That said, according to PICMG, COM Express and CompactPCI Serial may both be good choices for many installations due to their rugged designs and ability to withstand harsh environments.

PICMG’s Sensors Challenge was just one of many examples at the co-located event of the synergy between sensor technology and embedded computing technologies in today’s connected IoT age. So, while the trip may have felt like coming home for me, it was crystal clear that the two technologies and two shows felt right at home together.

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE• AUGUST 2019 #350- Get a PDF of the issue


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Jeff Child has more than 28 years of experience in the technology magazine business—including editing and writing technical content, and engaging in all aspects of magazine leadership and production. He joined the Circuit Cellar after serving as Editor-in-Chief of COTS Journal for over 10 years. Over his career Jeff held senior editorial positions at several of leading electronic engineering publications, including EE Times and Electronic Design and RTC Magazine. Before entering the world of technology journalism, Jeff worked as a design engineer in the data acquisition market.