Plug-and-play development kits make cellular IoT accessible to everyone

By Bjørn Kvaale September 29, 2021

Cellular IoTdevelopers

Cellular IoT products can be extremely challenging to design. Still, the nRF9160's high level of integration allows customers of all technical levels to focus on their application software, knowing that everything else is handled.

It has been two years since Nordic announced its nRF9160 low power System-in-Package (SiP) with integrated LTE-M/NB-IoT modem and GPS was ready for mass deployment in cellular IoT products. Since then, users have been working on clever innovations integrating Nordic's best-of-breed technology. These solutions stretch across an almost boundless range of verticals, including smart cities, logistics and asset tracking, industrial and agricultural monitoring, metering, parking and payment, and smart buildings, among many others.

Read more: Nordic Goes Cellular: Introducing the nRF91 Series

Developers have embraced the nRF9160 SiP for the same reason they welcomed Nordic's short-range, low-power wireless products – because you don't need to be an RF expert to get started. Cellular IoT products can be extremely challenging to design. Still, the nRF9160's high level of integration and proven firmware allows customers to solely focus on their application software, knowing that everything else is handled. Certified to operate in most regions, networks, and LTE/NB-IoT bands worldwide, the nRF9160 is as close as you can get to out-of-the-box cellular IoT connectivity.

Fully featured development tools

To further ease the designers' development challenge, Nordic provides the single-board nRF9160 Development Kit (DK) that includes an nRF52840 SoC board controller for combined cellular and Bluetooth Low Energy (Bluetooth LE) products. The DK can easily interface with external device shields thanks to its Arduino Uno Rev3 compatibility. Four user-programmable LEDs, two buttons, and two switches are available for output and input. It is bundled with an eSIM card from iBasis (which works in multiple countries) preloaded with 10MB of data.

The nRF9160 DK is supported by Nordic's nRF Connect Software Development Kit (SDK), which includes everything the developer needs to get started: application layer protocols application examples LTE modem firmware offered as precertified and precompiled downloads. The SDK also incorporates the Zephyr real-time operating system (RTOS). nRF Connect for Desktop's Toolchain Manager app makes it simple for users to download the latest version of the nRF Connect SDK.

The kit easily connects to Nordic's Cloud platform, nRF Cloud, which also has a REST API for easy integration to a customer's own Cloud. The Nordic Thingy:91 meanwhile enables users to get a proof-of-concept (PoC) up and running very quickly. In addition to the nRF9160 DK's functionality, Thingy:91 provides environmental sensors, a color and light sensor, along separate low-power and additional high G-force accelerometers. This is very useful for engineers more versed in web-based programming languages rather than embedded programming.

Read more: Simplify Cellular IoT Prototyping With Nordic Thingy:91

Despite the scope of these tools, Nordic's philosophy is to make its products available to all developers. While we believe the nRF9160 DK is a comprehensive development tool, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all platform. As such, Nordic fully supports the ecosystem of alternative nRF9160 SiP prototyping platforms and development boards and kits that have sprung up around the product.

The nRF9160 SiP development ecosystem

For example, Dutch IoT company, Actinius, offers the Icarus IoT Board, a plug-and-play development board and firmware. The board is engineered to provide technical and non-technical users with the ability to control and monitor asset tracking applications using GPS, LTE-M, and NB-IoT connectivity, thanks to the onboard nRF9160. Unlike many third-party DKs that try and steer users towards a specific ecosystem of sensor and board add-ons, the Icarus IoT Board offers a wide range of sensor and peripheral interfaces. For instance, an Adafruit FeatherWing-compatible form factor and pinout layout to give users easy access to add-on development options.

Circuit Dojo, a U.S.-based design company, has followed a similar path. Its open-source nRF9160 Feather development board is designed to simplify prototyping and speed time to market for makers, hobbyists, and developers. The nRF9160 Feather incorporates much of the functionality of the nRF9160 DK but in a more compact size.

Development with the nRF Connect SDK and nRF9160 Feather allows makers, hobbyists, and hackers to build highly reliable, efficient, multi-threaded cellular IoT applications. The Zephyr RTOS enables anything from simplistic applications with one or two threads in a compact build, occupying a small memory footprint, up to applications running hundreds of threads, all safely and securely.

Read more: RTOS: Real-Time Operating Systems for Embedded Developers

Rapid error-free prototyping

Earlier this year, SparkFun Electronics also launched its SparkFun Thing Plus – nRF9160 development board. In addition to the Nordic SiP, the development board includes the company's Qwiic connect system, an ecosystem of over 150 I2C sensors, actuators, shields, and cables that make prototyping faster and less prone to error. SparkFun also teamed up with Circuit Dojo to make the development board pin-compatible with Adafruit Featherwing accessory boards.

Japanese-based Braveridge has also released an LTE-M development board to help prototype and deliver products to market rapidly. Alongside the nRF9160 SiP, its FBV-EVK-N9160 SonicBoard incorporates a host of building block peripherals, including a full color LED, press and hold reset, a USB-UART bridge, a digital microphone, and I2S input D-class amplifier, as well as 2MB external RAM accessible via QSPI.

The sensors are not directly mounted on the SonicBoard; developers can select only the sensor suitable for their specific application and connect them to the development board as needed.

The freedom and flexibility of choice

What all these development tools have in common is flexibility. They allow the developer—be they a professional or hobbyist—the freedom of choice to select the nRF9160-based development tool that offers the right mix of ease of development, stability, speed, and expandability for their unique cellular IoT application.


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Topics: Embedded development, cellular IoT

Bjørn Kvaale's photo

By: Bjørn Kvaale

Bjørn has a Master of Science degree in Engineering Cybernetics & Robotics from the Norwegian University of Science & Technology. For two years he has been working in the technical support group at Nordic, focusing on Bluetooth mesh and nRF91/nRF Connect SDK. In addition to assisting customers, he enjoys giving technical presentations and helping out at customer trainings. Bjørn is currently working with the product marketing team.

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