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Tackling the challenge of IoT software updates

Notifications have become a common ritual of modern life: a notification on your smartphone shows that app updates have become available, you tap to download them and now you have newly installed features, bug fixes and security improvements.

App stores have made this process simple for the roughly 3 billion smartphone owners worldwide, but what about the 41.6 billion machines, sensors, cameras and other connected devices that IDC forecasts will make up IoT by 2025?

Until recently, the importance of easily and efficiently delivering software and firmware updates to IoT devices has been undervalued. But as these devices proliferate in cars, factories, farms and any number of other environments, keeping them up to date to either add functionality or ensure security is a growing and important priority.

Challenges of IoT software updates

Delivering software and firmware updates to IoT devices comes with two significant challenges. First, if an enterprise has hundreds or thousands of IoT devices deployed in the field, it is impractical — if not impossible — to perform updates manually. Second, when executed remotely, pushing out software updates that can range from a few to a hundred megabytes or more can constrain bandwidth and drive up costs, especially when they’re performed by cellular uplinks.

Organizations must find answers because it will always be easier and less expensive to improve through updates rather than replace IoT devices. And because a vulnerability in just one device can threaten the entire network, it is essential to constantly provide every device with the latest security protections.

Innovations in IoT software updates

Fortunately, technology has emerged to eliminate manual updating while also addressing the bandwidth issue. And it’s being successfully applied in the field by certain manufacturers, such as Cyberdyne. The company has attracted worldwide attention for its HAL, a wearable, cyborg-type robot that helps people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities regain movement.

Cyberdyne also makes an advanced cleaning robot, called CL02. Leveraging AI features and able to work without guide wires or magnetic tapes, the robots can record building layouts and map out cleaning routes dynamically and detect obstacles and ensure safety utilizing built-in 3D cameras.

To keep the robots’ software up to date efficiently and cost effectively was a major concern for Cyberdyne. The company assessed three options: sending service engineers all around Japan to client facilities; recalling the robots to the company headquarters; or remotely updating each individual robot.

The first option would have been labor-intensive, slow and costly. The second was impractical because it would take robots — each of which is expected to have a five-year service life — out of service for an undetermined period. The third would raise bandwidth and scalability concerns.

Cyberdyne decided to use technology that seamlessly rolls out software updates to its Linux-based robots in the field without engineer intervention and zero downtime, allowing the company to continue expanding its robot fleet while controlling operational costs. With this technology, containerized software packages that bundle everything the robots need — applications together with all their dependencies — are automatically downloaded and installed in the robots.

A major innovation, a form of data compression takes place where only code that has changed is transmitted to the robots, rather than the entire software package. For Cyberdyne, that can mean the difference between 500 MB or just 20 MB per robot, which is an enormous savings of time and bandwidth.

Bug fixes and new features are now delivered with unprecedented speed. And Cyberdyne’s customers don’t have to worry about robot software maintenance interrupting their cleaning schedules. Cyberdyne is even able to publish updates through an app store that enables their customers to update their robots according to their own timetable and cleaning schedule.

As Cyberdyne’s experience demonstrates a mechanism for software updates in the easiest, fastest and most cost-effective way possible is a critical component of a successful and long term IoT strategy. As the number of IoT devices continues to boom, it’s a topic the industry will increasingly be talking about as its looks to solve the problem of IoT software updates.

All IoT Agenda network contributors are responsible for the content and accuracy of their posts. Opinions are of the writers and do not necessarily convey the thoughts of IoT Agenda.

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