Developing an IoT Gateway for Smart Factory & Energy Management Deployments
February 22, 2021
In 2019, IntelliSense commenced the development of its own IoT gateway in order to address a need for a universal product that made data collection tasks much easier to accomplish. The gateway was named XSserver.IoT.
The core objective of the XSserver.IoT product was to facilitate the acquisition of data from various sensor devices situated within what would often be uncompromising industrial environments, then subsequently transfer this data to the cloud. The gateway would also allow captured data to be displayed locally.
Among the application areas where IntelliSense engineers could see clear potential for the gateway were energy management systems, smart city initiatives, automated manufacturing facilities, operations needing technical alarms management, renewable energy generation and storage sites, processing plant monitoring, metering systems, etc.
(Figure 1: Schematic illustrating the operational possibilities covered by the XSserver.IoT gateway)
As IntelliSense is primarily a software development company, it wanted to engage with a well-respected technology provider that had considerable expertise in developing advanced hardware. After looking at the different possible options, and carrying out some initial trials, the management team decided that the company should collaborate with Sfera Labs.
Key Hardware Expectations
One of the main criteria underlined by IntelliSense upon embarking on the XSserver.IoT was that the chosen hardware solution must adhere to recognized industry standards. The gateway needed to support commonly-used wireline and wireless communication interfaces like Ethernet, RS485, and Wi-Fi. This would allow it to be applied to any system without having integration difficulties to worry about. Because the company is a Microsoft partner, another important aspect was that the product would be capable of supporting the Microsoft developer environment.
Having compared potential options from various different hardware manufacturers and carried out comprehensive testing on prototypes using their technology, it had soon become clear that the Sfera Labs’ solution, which was based on a customised version of its Strato Pi server, was ideal for XSserver.IoT.
The CE/FCC/IC certified Strato Pi units take the popular Raspberry Pi computer platform and enhance it with the addition of several significant hardware features. This makes it suitable for use in industrial applications, where reliability and service continuity are mandated. These units can be employed in harsh industrial environments and comply with the industry standards for electro-magnetic compatibility (EMC), emissions immunity, and electrical safety. They provide safety, security, and fault-tolerance, as well as being easy to integrate through their support of standard communication buses and protocols like Modbus, RS-232, RS-485, etc.
The configurable hardware watchdog is a valuable safety feature (executing a hardware reset in case of software issues), while an opto-isolator protects against voltage transients and electro-static discharges. Inclusion of a Microchip ATECC608A secure element chip means that data encryption and decryption plus device authentication can all be taken care of, thereby mitigating the threat posed by hackers. It also secure boot functionality to prevent security breaches through unauthorised software upgrades.
(Figure 2: The Strato Pi server from Sfera Labs)
The Sfera Labs solution fully complied with the industry standards that were so important to IntelliSense. It was also apparent that it would allow the development process to be undertaken at an accelerated rate. Given the aggressive time frame goals that had been set, and pressures not to miss windows of opportunity, this would be pivotal to the product’s success. In addition, IntelliSense engineers could appreciate the fact that the Sfera Labs’ solution would deliver great flexibility, which was another major advantage. The high-level of technical support offered by the company proved to be a differentiator too.
Once the development phase had been completed, a series of pilot projects were launched with existing IntelliSense customers. Microsoft carried out thorough testing of the gateway’s software, which led to it receiving Azure certification.
The IntelliSense XSserver.IoT gateway was introduced to the market in early 2020 and has already been deployed in a wide variety of different large scale projects. As its connectivity is effectively vendor agnostic, it is easy to incorporate into automation infrastructure from leading players such as Siemens, Schneider Electric, ABB, Phoenix Contact and Rockwell. Likewise, it can interface with manufacturing execution system (MES), energy management, utility, building management and smart city-related software that is already in place.
Using the customer feedback received, IntelliSense is in the process of making enhancements to the XSserver.IoT product. Based on the impressive commercial traction already witnessed, the company is also looking at ways to optimise it, so that further markets can be targeted in the future.