Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Bitty Software and Preparing Youngsters for the Age of the IoT

Bitty Software is the name I use for my micro:bit smartphone/tablet applications project. At the time of writing, there are 5 Bitty Software applications for each of iOS and Android in their respective app stores. In each case, micro:bit coding tutorials are available, the idea being that to use the smartphone applications, you have to program your micro:bit. For those who don't want to, or who are simply too impatient to get started, pre-built hex files are also available.

The idea behind Bitty Software was to create resources for education and fun which shine a light on communications technology and the micro:bit rather than just on coding. Bluetooth is of course my communications technology of choice.

Why emphasise communications? Well, given one of the primary goals of the micro:bit project is to educate youngsters in coding and making things and to prepare them for potentially becoming the next generation of technology entrepreneurs and leaders (or simply to make a living from their technical skills), communication between devices is an essential thing to know about, and here's why.

Goldman Sachs released a report in 2014 which discussed the Internet of Things (IoT). In that report, they characterised the internet as evolving through three major phases.

1. The 1990s. 1 billion devices are connected to the internet. These are largely desktop computers and servers. People use modems that make a quaint bleeping sound.

2. The 2000s. 2 billion devices are connected to the internet. This is the age of the smartphone.

3. The year 2020. It's forecast that by 2020 there will be <drum roll> 28 billion devices connected to the internet. This is a phenomenal figure. And those devices? Computers, smartphone and tablets. Obviously. But also light bulbs, manufacturing equipment, sensors of every conceivable type and much more besides.

The IoT is why youngsters need to be educated in communications as well as coding. At the "edge tier" of any IoT architecture, you'll generally find smaller devices, often equipped with microcontroller units (MCUs). The BBC micro:bit is an MCU. And they will very typically communicate wirelessly with each other and with the internet via entities known as "gateways".

There are various wireless technologies. Some of them are categorised as "low power wireless technologies" meaning that they use relatively small amounts of power to communicate data. Bluetooth low energy is one example and this is the Bluetooth technology on the micro:bit. Low power use is critical in many IoT scenarios. Consider a smart building. It can only be "smart" in any meaningful sense of the word if we have lots of data about its various aspects and from every nook and cranny of the building, let alone every room; temperature, light levels, water levels, security status of windows and doors, occupancy of rooms and so on. Data can be accrued, aggregated and analysed. It can form the basis of intelligent automation and reveal hitherto unknown things about the building (is this building energy efficient compared to other, similar buildings?) but this can only be achieved with the right type and quantity of data, acquired at the right time.

To obtain this magical data requires sensors. Lots of sensors. Everywhere. Placing sensors in wall spaces, attics and under the ground becomes untenable if they need their batteries changing every few weeks. Devices have to run for many years on a single battery or better still, require so little power that energy harvesting techniques which generate power from ambient light, temperature changes, mechanical vibration or naturally occurring radio in the environment, can be used instead of batteries.

Its ubiquity (over 3 billion Bluetooth devices shipped in 2015 alone), wide platform support, developer friendliness and very low power requirements have made Bluetooth the low power communications technology of choice for the IoT.

So those youngsters we have such high hopes for, they need to be immersed in communications as well as coding and learn about creating systems of devices, not just creating the code for one device.

Bitty Software and Bluetooth. Doing their bit. OK, I nearly finished on a pun there!

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