An IoT development vehicle for Sheffield
< Project overview >
Prior to the pandemic we at Department of Computer Science at the University of Sheffield created a novel Internet of Things (IoT) device called the unPhone — unPhone.net — by partnering with a local business (Pimoroni.com) and a local charity (BitFIXit.co.uk). Inexpensive and multi-featured, unPhone is intended to encourage innovation and experimentation.
We used the device for teaching in our popular IoT course (taken by around 400 students so far), and made plans to release a retail version via our partners. These plans were interrupted by the pandemic, but with Pitch-In’s help we are now preparing a retail-ready version.
We are now completing (version 7 of) the unPhone, and making it available to our future students, for the use of Sheffield research projects (particularly in the emerging field of Smart Farming through our Institute for Sustainable Food of which Cunningham is an Associate Director and translational theme lead), and to the wider public via Pimoroni’s successful manufacturing and retail sales operation.
Both the Internet of Things and Smart Farming are highly significant research areas for the University. Making solid collaborative links to local industry and enabling future R&D services to business and social enterprises will both increase income and form foundations for the type of impact which we so successfully showcased in REF 2014 (and, touch wood, 2021!).
The work was to involve a further iteration of unPhone hardware development, along with the testing and documentation necessary for a commercial offering (see next section for more details). Beyond the project partners, the beneficiaries of this work will be anyone interested in digital innovation: students, researchers, employees of small or large enterprises, or simply members of the public.
What was done?
Our plan included performing hardware development, retail product documentation and unit testing.
We had previously funded six iterations of hardware prototype from other sources (including contributions from partners, research projects, the alumni fund and teaching budgets). We believed one more iteration would result in a board that is stable, robust and sufficiently functional to be a version 1 public release. This work involves our partners: printed circuit board (PCB) design alterations, test rig design and assembly, bill of materials (BoM) sourcing and pick-and-place robot manufacture. These partners have been under significant financial pressure caused by the pandemic, and latterly the global chip shortage, so Pitch-In assistance was essential.
In addition we have been preparing to further support external engagement with the device, building on the substantial documentation and code available at unPhone.net and our open source GitLab repository.
We have three activity streams within which we aimed to exploit the new device:
research: including the new ISF-funded smart agriculture demonstrator, Club Garden Farm (off London Road, Sheffield)
consulting services: availability of a commercial grade device kit will enable us to offer contracting work to external business customers
teaching: each Computer Science student taking the IoT track develops a hardware-based project to take away with them at the end of their degree, enhancing their employability and providing them with tangible proof of their development talents
We are successful in these areas already, but Pitch-In support has resulted in taking the next step in each of these areas.
Pi 4 unphone test stations. DripDash migration from self-built authentication flow to Auth0. Further Integration with ESP32 Devices including unPhone and WaterElf. Containerise and improve production readiness. Deployment to Amazon EC2 or similar. Testing and documentation. Security updates and other maintenance. unPhone & WaterElf: New firmware version including control and data reporting with DripDash. Updates to WiFi Manager, integration into new WaterElf firmware. Testing and documentation. Maintenance of C++ Codebase. Version 7 hardware (delivery Q4 2021).
Our novel device to support IoT instrumentation of various types (including in the Sheffield urban food production and distribution network) exploits the step change in Internet of Things microcontroller capabilities, combined with the emerging availability of LoRaWAN and Sigfox ultra narrow band radio, meaning that we can deliver an always-connected device without the use of conventional telecoms networks (and associated charges). We can do this at an economically viable cost level because of substantial investment in firmware expertise within our research team and partnership network, and because we’re exploiting a large extant body of work detailing open source and open hardware solutions for ESP32 integration with diverse sensors, actuators, and UI endpoints. Pimoroni and BitFIXit have existing track record and in-place capability in developing circuitry using that body of work, and the manufacturing expertise to deliver a robust and reliable technical solution tailored to our needs. (The board is fabricated on a Europlacer IINEO+, a multi-function SMT pick-and-place platform offering the highest level of flexibility and feeder count in the industry while being capable of accurately placing the smallest and finest pitch parts. Supporting schematics, firmware examples and related documentation are supplied in open formats conforming to industry standards and the open source feather/featherwing, ESP8266/ESP32 and Arduino ecosystems.)
As above; retail launch is expected Q1 2022!
Supporting and extending our existing relationships with external partners is hugely beneficial. Pimoroni have built a successful Sheffield business (employing around 50 people) from the small seed of winning the competition to design the Raspberry Pi logo. Their turnover is now largely based on the type of electronic maker kits that we will create. BitFIXit are committed to digital inclusion via open source and open hardware, and have been full partners in the design and delivery of earlier unPhone hardware versions. Their staff also work with Grobotics Systems, a Sheffield startup operating in the smart agriculture and IoT space.
A principal issue that afflicted the project was supply chain difficulties regarding integrated circuits in the middle of a global shortage (and pandemic). It is difficult to see how this could be handled better, but this did affect delivery schedules (but all was delivered within the time frame of the Pitch-In project). In addition, access to our labs and offices was constrained during the pandemic and caused some delays.
What has Pitch-In done for you?
Pitch-In has made a significant contribution to bringing a new generation IoT device to market.
Professor Hamish Cunningham - the University of Sheffield