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Board-Level Solutions Dress for IoT Duty

Written by Jeff Child

Ruggedness at the Edge

For applications where ruggedness is a requirement, board-level IoT solutions provide the kind of compact connectivity needed for the IoT edge.

The kinds of networking and edge computing required by an IoT implementation can vary extremely from application to application. Especially in harsh environment situations, rugged board-level IoT gateways and edge modules make more sense than office-grade kinds of solutions. Traditional SBC vendors are filling these needs by crafting powerful embedded boards that include wireless connectivity such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.

Over the past 12 months, embedded board vendors have rolled out a variety of products designed to serve IoT implementation needs. These range from high compute-density boards to compact solutions for space constrained applications.

RUGGED IoT SOLUTION
Exemplifying these trends, VersaLogic offers its Swordtail SBC that features models with either the NXP i.MX6 Quad (quad core), or the i.MX6 DualLite (dual core) processors (Figure 1). The SBC includes on-board Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a cellular plug-in socket. At home in hostile environments, the compact 95mm x 95mm computer board is rated for operation at full industrial temperature range (-40° to +85°C). Unlike many Arm-based “modules,” VersaLogic’s new Arm-based products are complete board-level computers. They do not require additional carrier cards, companion boards, connector break-out boards or other add-ons to function.

FIGURE 1 – The Swordtail SBC features models with either the NXP i.MX6 Quad (quad core), or the i.MX6 DualLite (dual core) processors. The SBC includes on-board Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a cellular plug-in socket.

Swordtail boards have been designed to enable transmission of maintenance or diagnostic information without the need for a wired connection. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios are included on the board, and a NimbleLink Skywire socket supports a wide range of optional cellular and other wireless plug-ins. The Swordtail board is suited for deployment into demanding industrial, smart city and transportation applications requiring rugged, long-life, power efficient and industrial temperature rated solutions.

Both Swordtail models feature soldered-on memory, and a variety of I/O connections. In addition to wireless capability, the on-board I/O includes a Gbit Ethernet port with network boot capability, two USB 2.0 Ports, serial I/O (RS-232), CAN Bus, microSD socket and I2C interface. The boards can accommodate up to 32GB of on-board flash storage. Many applications that require lower power or lower heat dissipation also need very high levels of reliability. Designed and tested for industrial temperature (-40° to +85°C) operation, VersaLogic’s Swordtail also meets MIL-STD-202H specifications to withstand high impact and vibration.

IoT EDGE ECOSYSTEM
Taking a comprehensive approach to IoT edge requirements, in September Congatec launched what it calls a 100W ecosystem for embedded edge and micro servers (Figure 2). The ecosystem is designed for embedded edge and micro servers that increasingly use 65W-100W COM Express Type 7 Server-on-Module performance for cost-efficient scalability. The solution initially targeted the company’s conga-B7E3 modules that feature 3GHz dual-die processors of the AMD EPYC Embedded 3000 series that supports a maximum TDP of 100W, up to 16 cores and 32 threads.

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FIGURE 2 – This 100W ecosystem for embedded edge and micro servers is designed for embedded edge and micro servers that increasingly use 65W-100W COM Express Type 7 Server-on-Module performance for cost-efficient scalability.

These 100W boards in the COM Express Basic form factor (95mm x 125 mm) can be equipped with new heat spreaders and heatpipe adapters for an efficient heatpipe cooling even of extremely low profile 1U servers. By designing systems in such a way that does not use rotating fans, it is possible to develop extremely robust embedded servers that are suitable for numerous applications at the IoT/Industry 4.0 edge, according to Congatec

In addition to the new cooling solutions, the 100W ecosystem also includes starter kits with the two different application-ready server-grade carrier boards, conga-X7EVAL and conga-STX7, that, among other things, execute four 10 GbE interfaces, which are server-compatible with SFP+ cages for both copper and fiber optic cables. Exemplifying edge server rack and box system designs, the kits can be modified to customer specifications. Relevant hardware engineering services for embedded edge server platforms round off the Congatec 100W ecosystem for Server-on-Modules.

Edge applications benefit from the hardware-integrated virtualization and leading-edge security features of the AMD EPYC Embedded 3000 SoC that includes Secure Boot System, Secure Memory Encryption (SME) and Secure Encrypted Virtualization (SEV), as well as a secure migration channel between two SEV-capable platforms. Support is also provided for IPsec with integrated crypto acceleration. As a consequence, even the server administrator does not have access to such an encrypted Virtual Machine (VM). According to Congatec, that’s very important for the high security required by many edge server services, which must enable multi-vendor applications in Industry 4.0 automation while helping ward off sabotage attempts by hackers.

COMPACT AI/IoT SOLUTIONS
An advantage of board-level solutions is that a board design can surround an innovative chip with the support electronics needed for deployment. Along those lines are a pair of boards from Innocomm that design in MediaTek’s AIoT (Artificial Intelligence of Things) SoCs. In August, LinuxGizmos.com, Circuit Cellar’s sister website, reported on Innocomm’s preliminary information on two system-on-modules (SoMs) based on MediaTek SoCs. The SB30 SoM is based on MediaTek’s 1.5GHz, quad-core, Cortex-A35 based MediaTek i300 (MT8362) SoC. And the SB50 SoM is based on the MediaTek i500 (MT8385).

The SB50 SoM (also called SB50 MTK i500 SoM) is designed for AI/AR/VR applications. The MediaTek i500 SoC combines 4x Cortex-A73 and 4x Cortex A53 cores, all clocked at 2.0GHz. There’s also an 800MHz Arm Mali-G72 MP3 and a 500MHz AI processor (APU) for deep learning, neural network acceleration and computer vision applications. The “cost-effective MediaTek i300 (MT8362) inside the SB30 SoM is a more modest offering. The SoC is built around 4x power-efficient Cortex-A35 cores clocked up to 1.5GHz.

Innocomm’s SB30 SoM (SB30 MTK i300 SoM) is designed for audio/video, kiosk, digital signage and fitness console applications. It combines the MediaTek i300 with 1GB or 2GB LPDDR3, 16GB eMMC and either dual-band 802.11ac and Bluetooth 5.0 or 2.4GHz 802.11n with Bluetooth 4.0. The SB30’s media interfaces include MIPI-DSI, LVDS, and HDMI 1.4a, as well as I2S for audio. You also get USB 2.0 host and OTG connections plus I2C, SPI, UART, and more.

MULTIPLE WIRELESS OPTIONS
Today’s IoT implementations use a wide variety of networking technologies, most of them wireless. With that in mind, Technologic Systems offers a board-level IoT product that packs in several technologies for wireless connectivity. The TS-7553-V2 is developed around the NXP i.MX6 UltraLite, a high-performance processor family featuring an advanced implementation of a single Arm Cortex-A7 core, which operates at speeds up to 696MHz (Figure 3). While able to support a wide range of embedded applications, the TS-7553-V2 was specifically designed to target the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sector.

FIGURE 3 – The TS-7553-V2 is developed around the NXP i.MX6 UltraLite. The board was designed with connectivity in mind, says Technologic. An on-board Xbee interface, capable of supporting Xbee or NimbleLink, provides a simple path to adding a variety of wireless interfaces. The TS-7553-V2 includes an on board Wi-Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 option.

The TS-7553-V2 was designed with connectivity in mind, says Technologic. An on-board Xbee interface, capable of supporting Xbee or NimbleLink, provides a simple path to adding a variety of Wireless interfaces. An Xbee radio can be used to link in with a local 2.4GHz or sub 1GHz mesh networks, allowing for gateway or node deployments. Either Digi or NimbleLink offer cellular radios for this socket, providing cellular connectivity for applications such as remote equipment monitoring and control. There is also the option for a cellular modem via daughter card. This allows transmission of serial data via TCP, UDP or SMS over the cellular network. The TS-7553-V2 also includes an on board Wi Fi b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 option, providing even more connectivity.

Further radio expansion can be accomplished with the two internal USB interfaces (one on a standard USB Type A connector, and the second on simple pin headers). The USB interfaces enable support for multiple proprietary networks via a dongle or USB connected device. This provides the opportunity to run mesh, LoRa, ZigBee, automotive Wi-Fi or other protocols with the TS-7553-v2. All of these radio options combined with the on-board 10/100Base-T Ethernet create the opportunity to communicate seamlessly with up to 5 different networks simultaneously from a single point.

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A Nine-Axis Micro-Electro-Mechanical System (MEMS) motion tracking device containing a gyroscope, accelerometer and compass are optional on-board in for asset management, fleet management and other applications which would require sensing motion or vibration in the environment. A low cost monochrome 128x64px LCD with 4 button keypad is available for Human Machine Interface (HMI) applications.

SYSTEM-ON-MODULES FOR IoT
Ultra-compact board-level modules are in high demand for many IIoT implementations. Meeting just such needs, Arbor Technology provides a pair of System-on-Module (SOM) products both based on Rockchip SoCs, the RK3399-based SOM-RK391 and the Rockchip PX30-based SOM-RP301. Both modules run Ubuntu, Buildroot, or Android 9.0. Along with the pair of modules, the company has also released the PBA-9000-A, its SOM-Series, single pin-out design carrier board.

Built around the Rockchip RK3399 hexa-core (2x Cortex-A72 + 4x Cortex-A53) SoC, the SOM-RK391 is designed for high-performance applications such as AI computing, edge computing and machine vision, according to Arbor. For memory, the RK391 provides 2GB to 4GB of LPDDR4 DRAM and mass storage via 16GB eMMC flash plus support SD Card boot up. The Mali-T860MP4 GPU supports OpenGL ES1.1/2.0/3.0/3.1, OpenVG1.1, OpenCL and DX11. Display support includes eDP, MIPI DSI and HDMI. The compact 69.6mm x 70mm SOM supports extended operating temperatures from 10ºC to 70ºC.

The RK391 also provides Wi-Fi /Bluetooth support including 2T2R 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 with real simultaneous dual-band (RSDB). You also get 2x MIPI CSI RX camera interfaces with 13MP ISP. For I/O you get 4x USB 2.0, 2x USB 3.0 2 (Type C), 2x 2-wire UART ports and 2x 4-wire UART ports. There’s also support for RTC, 10-bit 1MS/s ADC, SDIO, DIO, GPIO, SPI and I2C.

The SOM-RP301 meanwhile is based on the Rockchip PX30 Quad-Core Cortex-A35 processor and measures a compact 70mm x 50mm. Arbor touts the board for its low power consumption, flexible thermal management, cost-efficiency and its suitability for IIoT applications. The combination of its hardware media decoder and processing power makes it a fit to implement in retail kiosks such as electronic restaurant menus, automated currency exchange machines, ticketing kiosks and so on, according to Arbor.

The SOM-RP301 offers provides 1GB to 4GB of LPDDR4DRAM and mass storage via 16GB eMMC flash plus support SD Card boot up. The Mali-T860MP4 GPU supports OpenGL ES1.1/2.0/3.0/3.1, OpenVG1.1, OpenCL and DX11. Display support includes LVDS and MIPI DSI, and those interfaces share the same pinout. Like the RK391, this module also supports extended operating temperatures from 10 to 70ºC.

The RK391 also provides Wi-Fi /Bluetooth support including 1x 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac for Wi Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. You also get 1x MIPI CSI RX camera interface with 8MP ISP. For I/O the RP301 provides the all the same ports as the RK391 as described above.

IoT GATEWAY BOARD
While most IoT gateways are box-level systems, there are a number of board-level IoT gateways on the market. Last summer, Newark Element14 and Avnet launched a Raspberry Pi based “SmartEdge Industrial IoT Gateway” with 2x Ethernet, Wi-Fi/BT, CAN, serial and optional Zigbee, Z-Wave or LoRa. It’s basically a single board solution in a gateway enclosure (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4 – The SmartEdge Industrial IoT Gateway is Raspberry Pi-based and provides 2x Ethernet, Wi-Fi/BT, CAN, serial and optional Zigbee, Z-Wave or LoRa.

The Avnet SmartEdge Industrial IoT Gateway supports Avnet’s “IoT Connect” platform to enable cloud connectivity to Microsoft Azure. The Linux-driven embedded PC supports industrial automation applications such as remote monitoring, predictive maintenance, process control and automation. In its specs, Premier Farnell doesn’t say which Raspberry Pi is under the hood, but based on the Wi-Fi support, it would appear to be the RPi 3 Model B rather than the B+. The limited specs announced for the gateway include 8GB eMMC, an HDMI port, and TPM 2.0 security. The image suggests there are also at least 2x USB ports and a coin cell battery holder for a real-time clock.

For communications, you get dual 10/100 Ethernet ports as well as 2.4GHz Wi-Fi and BLE 4.2 with an integrated antenna and external mount. The gateway also provides a mini-PCIe interface for optional cellular modems. In addition, the enclosure features space for an additional internal accessory to provide Zigbee, Z-Wave or LoRa capabilities, for example, or for multiple accessories through case expansion.

The system is further equipped with CAN-BUS and RS-232/485 interfaces with Modbus and DeviceNet support, as well as isolated digital I/O. There’s also a 40-pin expansion header for Raspberry Pi HATs and other add-on boards. The system has a wide-range 12-24VDC input plus DIN rail and wall mounting. 

RESOURCES
Arbor Technology | www.arbor-technology.com
Avnet | www.avnet.com
Congatec | www.congatec.com
Innocomm | www.innocomm.com
Technologic Systems | www.embeddedarm.com
VersaLogic | www.versalogic.com

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • FEBRUARY 2020 #355 – Get a PDF of the issue


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Editor-in-Chief at Circuit Cellar | Website | + posts

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.