How to Overcome 4 Challenges in IoT Hardware Design
An IoT design challenge can be frustrating, but it won’t necessarily derail an entire project.
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Getting a new Internet of Things (IoT) product on the market requires understanding design challenges that could pose obstacles along the way or mean the device does not work as well as expected. Here are some of the main concerns related to hardware and how to solve them.
1. Long Battery Life
Many of today’s IoT device users need them to have batteries that can last for years. That’s particularly important if someone plans to deploy something in a remote area they cannot easily access for battery changes. Suppose the product is a connected medical device used inside a patient’s body. Frequent battery replacements could require operations or otherwise put someone at an elevated risk of complications.
Hardware designers should consider which aspects will consume the most power and then assess whether they are critical for the design. If they are, the next step is to figure out how to lengthen battery life.
One way to solve this IoT design challenge is to use integrated circuits with deep-sleep modes that consume very little current. Additionally, designers can look for opportunities to use low battery voltages. The idea is to minimize the current draw within the product. Designers can reach that goal by using low-power components and ensuring parts don’t continue to pull too much power when not used.
A European Union-funded project indicated that up to 78 million IoT batteries will be discarded by 2025 if engineers do not take steps to improve their life spans. Researchers who commented on the project believe major progress will occur by developing batteries that can sustainably recharge themselves. However, for now, they say designers should prioritize battery life early when planning IoT devices.
2. Security Flaws
Current headlines frequently feature worrisome details of security flaws that could affect IoT devices worldwide. Solving this IoT design challenge from a hardware perspective requires a multipronged approach.
First, designers should consider secure key management that prevents parties from accessing keys in unencrypted states. They must design the product to generate and store keys securely. They should also explore using hardware-accelerated encryption to keep the device more secure while saving power.
Another best practice is to have separate memory domains to isolate sensitive and nonsensitive IoT code and data. Using secure memory access can safeguard RAM and flash memory from unauthorized access. Hardware designers must also implement protections for debugging and programming. Doing that makes it more difficult for hackers to use programming interfaces and debuggers to launch attacks.
Hardware designers should also participate in or encourage discussions around programs to disclose newfound cybersecurity vulnerabilities in a product. One study found that only 21% of IoT vendors currently have such initiatives. However, they’re essential for helping designers and everyone else concerned with IoT security become aware of issues that would otherwise go unnoticed.
3. The Push for Lighter, Smaller Devices
Another IoT design challenge comes from the fact that there’s an increasing demand for devices that are progressively smaller and lighter. The desire for those characteristics makes sense because it allows for flexibility in implementation.
One possibility is to see whether the device warrants using a flexible printed circuit board (PCB) rather than a rigid one. Flexible PCBs are 95% lighter and allow more components to fit in a smaller space. They're also usually more durable than rigid ones and can better tolerate shocks in harsh environments, giving them longer life spans overall.
If the IoT device will work with artificial intelligence (AI) or handle on-device data processing, hardware designers must understand that those necessities can also impact the form factor. Researchers have recently made progress by running algorithms on a microcontroller unit (MCU) that’s already used in billions of IoT devices. They said their technique would further reduce the memory needed to run AI algorithms while improving performance.
Manufacturers of components for IoT devices also aim to make items such as Wi-Fi modules progressively smaller so they’re more suitable for miniaturized products. IoT hardware designers should stay abreast of those developments and learn how newer options could support their upcoming products.
4. Devoting Enough Time to Testing
Designers typically operate on tight schedules. Even so, they must set aside enough time to carry out hardware tests and make the necessary tweaks after getting the respective results. Manufacturer assessments cover areas ranging from mechanical testing to environmental resistance.
In this phase, designers will ensure that aspects such as connectivity, battery life, and user-friendliness meet the minimum requirements they expect. The tests occurring before a product arrives on the market can also prevent security-related issues. For example, fuzz testing involves subjecting IoT devices to random byte strings and tracking abnormal behaviors that could indicate bugs. This most commonly happens when testing computer applications. However, it’s a useful option for checking IoT devices too.
Effective communication across teams is essential to get valuable test results. The software developer who worked on a device might uncover a bug that partially affects hardware. In those cases, software developers and hardware designers would need to work together on potential solutions.
Staying in contact with testers is also essential. Many of those parties may not immediately understand that they experienced a problem due to a hardware issue. However, after the people involved in testing give detailed feedback, hardware designers and others involved with the IoT product can start targeting what went wrong and collaborate to fix it.
Hardware designers should always plan on testing taking more time than anticipated. That way, there will be no pressure to rush and potentially miss problems that could interfere with the product’s functionality or security later.
Foresight Prevents Many IoT Design Challenges
There’s no universal way to avoid every IoT design challenge you might come across. However, as these examples show, it’s vital to think of the good and bad outcomes of every design decision. Doing that will help designers make the most appropriate choices during every stage and steer clear of costly and time-consuming issues.
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