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Small Modules for Data Acquisition

Small Form Factors, and Data Acquisition, and the Internet of Things, Oh My!

By now everyone is aware that the Internet of Things (IoT) is here to stay. A concept dating back almost two decades, it continues to evolve over time, becoming an all consuming umbrella covering a wide range of networked infrastructures.

BY DAVID FASTENAU, DIAMOND SYSTEMS

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One source defines the Internet of Things as “a world where physical objects are seamlessly integrated into the information network, and where the physical objects can become active participants in business processes. Services are available to interact with these ‘smart objects’ over the Internet, query and change their state and any information associated with them, taking into account security and privacy issues.”

Due to the rapid developments in computer hardware, software and the Internet, as well as in sensors, mobile communications and multimedia technologies among others, distributed computing systems have evolved drastically to improve services and responsiveness. In addition, they have  expanded into new application areas, with better quality of services and lower costs. Cloud computing is an excellent example and is at the heart of the Internet of Things. 

In embedded computing, we see this as the continual expansion of smarter and smarter devices in distributed networks interfacing to the world around them. The challenges for distributed computing systems to satisfy increasing demands have also become greater.

Besides reliability, performance and availability, many other attributes such as information security, privacy, trustworthiness, situation awareness, flexibility and rapid application development are increasingly important.

Given the above definition and the ongoing trends of distributed intelligence, especially in the world of embedded computing and machine-to-machine interfaces, it’s time to recognize the key role that data acquisition plays in the Internet of Things.

The Real World Meets the Electronic World

Within the space of small form factor embedded computing, we are no strangers to the requirements for data acquisition to interface to the physical world, as well as the need for communication to enterprise or IT servers to share information and coordinate activities. Wherever the real world of physical objects interacts with the electronic world of 1’s and 0’s, data acquisition is there serving as the intermediary. A translator, a controller or a supervisor communicates what is occurring in both the physical and electronic worlds, and passes commands or instructions from the computer servers back to the physical objects.

In today’s vertical market applications there is a huge amount of data generated that is meaningful and useful for process control, quality monitoring and other business-related functions. This large amount of data must be manageable, easily accessible and presentable in meaningful ways for the efficiency of the operation. 

Examining the workings of a typical 24/7 automated factory provides an excellent context for the role of data acquisition in the Internet of Things. During every minute of operation at this factory there are thousands upon thousands of interactions between the physical world and the electronic world, all designed to keep production on track in a safe and efficient manner. 

Using plant floor thin clients directed by the primary factory server, intelligent assembly robots are programmed wirelessly for the next task approaching them on the production line. Motion control sensors and pneumatics, also directed from the primary factory server through an embedded computing node that translates the instructions into analog output signals, pick the material from a storage bay and place it on a conveyor belt for delivery to the assembly robot, whose instructions were provided by the same server. 

Once the robot has reported the successful completion of its task back to the primary server through the thin client, additional commands are then relayed wirelessly from another thin client to a different embedded node responsible for moving the newly assembled part along to the next step in the process (Figure 1). The same concepts apply in a process control application where intelligent distributed computing nodes with data acquisition control fast moving, complex processes with ease as directed by IT servers. 

Figure 1
Typical Automated Factory Architecture.

In this environment there are dedicated embedded computer systems with data acquisition capabilities that control exactly how much and when each amount of material is added to the process; others control the temperature and pressure at which the solution is processed; and yet others monitor the output, looking for consistency and quality of the final product. In both of these environments, data acquisition touch points are being more widely distributed and integrated directly into the physical objects such as robots, conveyor drive systems and flow monitoring nodes—all driven by the ever growing need for more direct contact with the physical world using smaller devices.

Whether at an automotive assembly plant, in an oil refinery, or at a thin film processing plant, today’s high volume production would not be possible without data acquisition. Analog inputs and outputs, waveform generators and pulse width modulators are all working together to effectively control and measure what is going on in the real world around us. 

It’s a Small World After All

In the world of small form factor computing, data acquisition services have been traditionally supplied via add-on I/O modules in one stackable I/O form factor or another, such as PC/104. While this has served the embedded market well and will continue to in many applications, the continuing requirements for smaller, lighter, less power and lower cost are driving not only changes in embedded single board computers, but also in the way data acquisition is implemented.

Some embedded SBCs have data acquisition circuitry on board, eliminating the second add-on I/O module and its associated size and weight. Smaller plug-and-play data acquisition I/O modules also address these continuing demands, for example the development of the FeaturePak I/O module (1.70” x 2.55”) industry standard in 2011, and the more recent emergence of PCIe MiniCard (1.18” x 2”) sockets appearing on small form factor single board computers. 

Both of these options allow for off-the-shelf plug-in I/O modules to be quickly added to an embedded computer, including data acquisition I/O modules. Both options offer cost-effective data acquisition functionality in a much smaller and lighter board that does not increase the height profile of the SBC (Figure 2).

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

The Internet of Things is moving quickly toward a complete integration of the many heterogeneous networks in the world today with the networked physical objects around them.  This includes the common factory floor and process control systems and elements we are all familiar with today. Under the IoT umbrella, one of the most important issues is to capture and collect data from the physical world. In the future, IoT is expected to accomplish this at an extremely efficient level with a high level of accuracy. 

By integrating current and new technologies such as wireless sensor networks, RFID, intelligent sensors, embedded nodes and Web services, the future of data acquisition within the framework of the Internet of Things is headed toward low-cost, IoT-enabled intelligent data acquisition nodes that receive instructions and/or collect data wirelessly, then independently perform their assigned tasks. 

One approach is for the networked system to employ compression sampling at intelligent distributed data acquisition nodes, transfer the information wirelessly over the network, and ensure accurate data recovery at the IT servers. This approach will encourage the development of even smaller, smarter data acquisition nodes embedded inside of the physical objects themselves and communicating continuously with the IoT Cloud around them.

The Internet of Things in an integral part of the future of computing. There will be no independent architectures. Everything will be seamlessly integrated through interoperable service platforms with data transferring instantly across the network to where it is needed. 

In embedded small form factor computing, where the real world meets the computer world, data acquisition has and will continue to serve as the service platform for interfacing with the physical world, evolving to meet the emerging needs of an ever changing environment.

Diamond Systems
Mountain View, CA
(650) 810-2500
www.diamondsystems.com