Why is the balenaFin right for fleet owners? Part 3: Networking

This is the third in a series of posts about the key features that make the balenaFin the right choice for IoT fleet owners. For those who aren’t familiar with the balenaFin, you can take a look at this introductory post. We’ve divided the series into three posts that cover the main categories: storage, power and networking.

When it comes time to choose an IoT device for professional workloads, you’re often forced to add off-board USB peripherals to consumer-grade devices to get the networking capabilities you want, but doing so can also sacrifice durability or add expense. Let's explore how professional-grade connectivity makes a difference for devices on the edge and mitigates some of the headaches.

Addressing some common IoT networking challenges

When developers first set out to add cellular or LoRaWAN capabilities to their IoT devices, they often go with a USB device because the dongles are relatively cheap and easy to find. While USB cellular modems, WiFi dongles and LoRaWAN devices might work well in contaminate-free environments, they don’t hold up well to the motion, dust, and dirt that devices face in the field, or just in being shipped to locations. A loose or flakey network device is almost as bad as a flat-out device failure, and can easily leave your running device inert.

Most single board computers have some type of standard for adding peripherals on top of the device to help alleviate this problem (HATs for Raspberry Pi, Shields for Arduinos, etc). Adding HATs can help, and the balenaFin is fully compatible with the HAT standard because it’s a great alternative in some use-cases, but they can be tricky to configure and costly to source at scale.

For example, cellular and LoRaWAN connectivity are fairly common requirements across IoT devices, and you can easily find yourself with a stack of three or more HATs if you need these capabilities along with other features. This can make your device bulky and harder to deploy.

Even if you do manage to put together a workable hardware stack that suits your needs, you still need a way to keep the devices you want to run on batteries operational and connected for as long as possible. Most common IoT devices draw lots of power even when they’re idle, shortening their useful lives in the field, leaving you to wonder if you’re dealing with a dead device or merely a network interruption.

For some, networking is closely tied to power, particularly If you have the infrastructure and want to add passive PoE to provide power to your IoT devices. That capability usually requires yet another HAT, which adds even more cost and complexity to your deployment.

Versatile networking makes the Fin ideal for the edge

For cellular networking, rather than using a USB modem, the balenaFin can accept a more robust mini-PCIe cellular modem and take advantage of the onboard SIM card slot to connect to 3G, 4G, and other public networks. There’s no need to add a header shield to get mini-PCIe capabilities or a HAT to accommodate the SIM.

As we mentioned, there are situations where HATs and Shields are the right approach. Think custom sensors or protocols like LoRaWAN used to communicate with multiple devices. As a compute-module carrier board, the balenaFin is fully compatible with the HAT standard. To complement it, we’ve added USB connectivity and co-processor I/O via extra headers.

Built for industrial or agricultural deployments

These balenaFin capabilities are ideal for industrial applications or, say, an agricultural deployment with IoT devices located in fields, greenhouses, warehouses, and vehicles. In such a deployment, you’ll need to take advantage of cellular, wired and wireless networks; cope well with motion and dirt; handle widely varying operating temperatures; and stay up and running on solar, battery or wired power.

Balena customers like Infarm and Agrorobotica do just that. Infarm relies on cellular networking to keep thousands of urban herb and vegetable farms online, and Agrorobotica needs reliable performance for monitoring parasitic insects in some of the toughest environmental conditions.

In more robustly networked locations, you can skip the cellular modem and use the balenaFin’s onboard WiFi or Ethernet. The balenaFin features dual-band WiFi (2.4GHz and 5GHz), wired Ethernet, and Bluetooth that keep your devices connected.

Paired with our cloud services, each balenaFin in a fleet can be tuned for its unique location and still be managed centrally with balenaCloud. For example, in a farm field or truck, you’ll need a cellular modem and low power consumption. In a warehouse or greenhouse, you’ll need WiFi and maybe PoE. A single balenaCloud configuration can manage them all.

Utilizing the Bluetooth Low Energy chip and low-power coprocessor

Of course, power in a farm field is limited, so if you plan to attach a solar cell or battery, you can take advantage of the balenaFin’s Bluetooth Low Energy chip and low-power coprocessor. Together, they enable you to communicate with the balenaFin even when its main ARM processor is off or your application is idle. This can save power and give your devices better longevity in the field. The co-processor also can be used to run real-time applications like sensors and control systems, saving power.

Coprocessor experimentation

You can experiment with the coprocessor with the balenaFin Firmata application we built. This will run and install OpenOCD on your Fin in order to provision the coprocessor with both a bootloader and the Firmata application.

We’ve also created a block called finabler that you can add to your docker-compose.yml file that provides a simple interface for controlling the balenaFin's coprocessor running the firmata protocol. The code block is a Docker image that provides flashing utilities, status tagging, sleep control and firmata control functionality.

Final thoughts

Regardless of how or where your balenaFins join a network, they all connect through the encrypted VPN that’s a core capability of balenaCloud. Even if a moving device is getting a new cellular network IP address every few miles, it will remain connected to the balenaCloud dashboard, where you can monitor and manage it.

As the number of balenaFins deployed in the field continue to grow, we’ve been able to test the networking performance in a wide variety of applications with very positive feedback.

Here's a quick summary of the key networking features of the balenaFin:

  • Wired Ethernet
  • Dual-band WiFi
  • Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy
  • Mini-PCIe for cellular modems and peripherals
  • A SIM card slot
  • PoE compatibility via a HAT (802.3af)
  • USB headers that can be leveraged by custom balenaFin HATs for extended functionality

Resources

Here are ways to get additional information on balenaFin and other features.

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