It isn’t news to any professional in the electronics industry, or virtually any other, that almost any technology, process, or service that can be internet or intranet connected is being connected. If it is a wired connection or a wireless connection, the fundamental way most people are interacting with their world or data is being done with, or enhanced by, connected devices. The heart of innovation is effective and accessible communication. The Internet of Things (IoT) has made it possible for devices to relay information one to another, but intrinsically relies on an analog backbone to operate.
The Digital World & The Internet-of-Things
Many of the latest “digital” services and technologies are benefiting from ongoing process improvements of designing, fabricating, and deploying digital hardware and software. From everyday computational tasks to tackling Big Data use cases, the latest CPUs, GPUs, GPPUs, FPGAs, memory, storage, and digital communication technologies are being augmented to better handle data, and even provide edge-computation, from a multitude of data gathering “edge” devices.
Though much of the Internet-of-Things, where the internet is just intercommunicating digital systems, and cloud services are being designed to play purely within the digital world, ambitious innovators are busy pioneering new solutions that solve modern challenges by interfacing with the chaos of the real “analog” world. Analog sensors, actuators, and processing hardware is commonly considered “old hat” and often overlooked in many applications but tackling the challenges of the modern world requires a fresh look at the “analog” world.
The History of IoT Dates Back To The 1800s
The path to IoT began with basic forms of long-distance communication. In 1832, Baron Shillings in Russia invented the first electromagnetic telegraph. At first glance Morse code looks like a digital mode - there are dits and dahs, two values which contain the information of the transmission, usually conveyed via dedicated telecommunication lines or radio. Obviously, radio waves by their nature are analog. But, the most rudimentary definition of digital is something represented by discrete values, which Morse code is with only two options for representing something, dit or dah.
There is also Tesla’s first IoT device. As early as 1892, Nikola Tesla created a basic design for a radio. On November 8, 1898, he patented a radio-controlled robot-boat. Tesla used this boat, which was controlled by radio waves, at the Electrical Exhibition in 1898, Madison Square Garden.
Tesla's robot-boat was constructed with an antenna, which received the radio waves coming from the command post where Tesla was standing. Those radio waves were received by a radio sensitive device called coherer, which translated the radio waves into mechanical movements of the propellers on the boat. Tesla was able to change the boat's direction with manually operated controls on the command post. Since this was the first application of radio waves, it made front page news in America at that time. IoT Has evolved enormously since then, largely due to the growth of cloud computing/services and wireless connectivity advancements.
Big Questions Need Big Answers
The Analog-of-Things is a way of thinking of the growing ecosystem of solutions and devices that are needed to gather data, condition signals, power systems, and control actuators. Without the Analog-of-Things, the Internet-of-Things can’t reach its full potential and truly touch the world around us.
For many years, the “analog” realms of analog, RF, power, optics, control, and electromagnetic compliance/electromagnetic interference (EMC/EMI) have been treated as disparate ideas, islands in a vast sea of electrons. However, fully realizing the benefits that technology could bring to society requires a perspective that the Analog-of-Things and the Internet-of-Things are two sides of the same path. The path goes from the dirt and soil all the way to the cloud, and back again, and this path is rife with dangers and pitfalls. Any delays, errors, or vulnerabilities in this path impacts the speed, efficiency, and effectiveness of transferring and interpreting the information traveling along the path.
Analog-of-Things systems and solutions now need to be as agile and adaptable as their digital counterparts in order to be the best stewards of the information they carry and to the actuation tasks they need to perform. Also, analog and digital systems are increasingly being modularized and integrated as building blocks into more complex systems. This holistic view of the Analog-of-Things and Internet-of-Things is needed to properly design and protect the systems that we are increasingly relying on for our productivity, entertainment, travel, and safety. Seamlessly bringing together the digital and analog world in a secure and efficient manner is the key to future technologies to combat threats to our collective health and safety.
Aspects of the Analog-of-Things
- Capturing and conditioning information signals
- Delivering control signals
- Managing power
- Converting electrical energy between domains (analog, power, optics, RF, etc.)
- Protecting information signals with shielding and filtering
- Aspects of The Internet-of-Things Digital World
- Processing, analyzing, and storing data
- Communicating digitized information
- Converting data into different formats
- Securing data and communication traffic (privileged access management) from mal actors
Unleashing The Analog-of-Things
Though not usually stated directly, wireless connectivity efforts, such as 5G, are relying on the strong performance of the Analog-of-Things to reliably deliver services that meet the goals of enhanced-mobile broadband (eMMB), ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLCs), and massive machine-type communication (MMC). Without high performance advanced/active antenna systems (AAS), RF-frontends (RFFE), EMC/EMI protection, multitudes of sensor nodes, etc. (all Analog-of-Things systems and devices) the aspirations of 5G, 6G, and beyond won’t be possible.
This is why there has been a boom of advancements and research efforts to develop smaller, faster, more efficient, more powerful, less costly, and more reliable RF and power microelectronics. These traditionally discrete analog systems are becoming increasingly integrated and built using sophisticated semiconductor manufacturing processes specifically designed for these applications. Part of the reason for these advancements in “analog” semiconductor technology is that there is a practical limit to the power, fidelity, and frequency handling capability of digital process, synthesis, and conversion electronics. These limitations in digital electronics often lead to degradation of signal quality or system performance and require analog components to correct.
In many cases there is no way to integrate all of the analog, RF, EMC/EMI, and power components in a single package, and modules still need to be brought together into integrated microwave assemblies (IMAs) and systems. Designing and assembly IMAs is as sophisticated as semiconductor manufacturing but is typically in smaller volumes and generally involves integrating a variety of discrete components and modules into the most compact and efficient form factor possible.
Bridging The Analog & Digital Divide
This process necessitates mastery of interconnecting analog and digital systems and handling the subsequent need for EMI/EMC protections from external and internal interference. As new electronic systems evolve to provide more features and enhanced capabilities, even more sophisticated systems are then needed to optimize the design of, and test, these new complex amalgamations of digital and analog systems. In many situations, these test systems are higher performance brethren of the systems they are testing, and even more sophisticated tools and understanding is needed to design and build test systems. For instance, to test multiple wireless devices in a network, a test system needs to be able to emulate such a network, device activity, and manipulate the communication link between the devices to evaluate the performance of the devices and system.
It is unlikely that any modern technologies will succeed or remain competitive for long if they are not designed from the ground up from both an analog and digital perspective, and if security isn’t part of the original design ethos. This is where technologies, such as privileged access management, come into play, as well as EMI/EMC to prevent intrusive signals impacting system performance and internal signals revealing unnecessary information.
The possibilities are exciting as technological and process advances break down the barriers between the analog and digital worlds with the Analog-of-Things and Internet-of-Things acting as catalysts.