When a local schooltecher emailed me in June, asking 'Does your company know anything about micro chips?' the answer was...'well, yes we do'...
Stephanie Horan, who teaches Business Studies at Little Heath School near Reading, went on to explain that two of her pupils had entered a competition organised by the Education Business Partnership called 'Cultivate'. It has been set up to encourage pupils aged 12 - 19 yrs to come up with a business idea. Stephanie's pupils, called Maddie and Abbie, both age 13, had been selected as finalists. And their big idea was to produce and sell a 'smart' pet collar, that could capture and relay location data back to an app for pet owners.
This is their Internet of Things (IoT) product encapsulated in one of their presentation slides.
The girls were very excited to be selected as finalists, and keen to develop their idea as much as possible. And that is what prompted them to get in touch with Sondrel, because they wanted to find out whether they could turn their idea on paper into a physical product to present at the final....
Maddie & Abbie in their team photo for the competition
So, they had an idea, and now they had the name of a company who might know a thing or two about silicon chips - an essential ingredient in transforming an ordinary pet collar into a 'smart' one. Could their idea become a reality in the space of a few weeks?
It was time to call in someone with engineering know-how. And I had in mind the perfect candidate - an engineering manager who I knew in his spare time had been developing an IoT application for his own home. I forwarded the email enquiry to Andrew Miles, explaining what the girls hoped to achieve, and kept my fingers crossed that his response would be good news for the girls.
Andy Miles - Our Engineering Superhero!
A meeting was arranged so that Maddie and Abbie could visit the Sondrel office in Theale and meet Andy in person. It was also an opportunity for them to visit a chip design company and understand the type of products and applications that Sondrel engineers work on for clients around the world.
At our first meeting, Andy highlighted several key considerations for their smart collar. He took a cat as a 'pet example'!...
- The Range: Bluetooth is only designed for up to 10m. (the girls had initially described their idea as a bluetooth pet collar.) I don’t know many cats that keep within this range. You are probably looking for a celluar communication chip instead. Alternatively, it could be just a data-logger and the Bluetooth is just used to retrieve where the pet has been, once back home.
- The Size: The easiest solution is off-the-peg chipsets. 1 cellular microcontroller, a gps chip + antenna and a battery but that could be big and heavy. I don’t want to kill any cats...
- Power: GPS is power hungry and coin batteries have low milliamp-hours. You would have to balance how often the GPS locator switches on versus how long you want the device to last for, unless you connect the cat to a lead-acid battery. Then you’d always know where it was.
The great news from the meeting was that their idea could work in reality.
The next thing to address was what would be possible to present at the final. The time-frame was tight, with only 6 weeks until they had to make their presentation. And the cost of building the collar needed to be taken into account. In addition, the understanding that the girls would need to build a working model themselves was, currently, beyond their capabilities. It is a project you would take on at A-level or Degree electronic engineering level.
Our superhero engineer, Andy, came to the rescue with his proposal. He would build the girls a prototype in his spare time - to show proof of concept. And Sondrel would cover the cost to build it. Within the timeframe Andy would use off-the-shelf components. The prototype would be bigger than the envisioned finished product they would take to market. However, it would clearly show the judges that the girls' idea could function in line with their business plan.
The Pet Tracker prototype that Andy built consisted of:
1. Particle Electron with Cortex M3 Microcontroller
2. Cellular modem MTK3329 GPS module
4. Cellular antenna
5. decoupling capacitor 6. LiPo Battery
It weighed 155g, size: 85 x 55 x 37mm (110 x 55 x 50mm with GPS antenna, collar attachment). The battery life for the device was pretty good, lasting for more than 2 days. These were the operating instructions:
Charge the battery via the USB port until the red light (kind of visible through the hole) is no longer lit. A mobile charger should be able to charge it in under an hour. Attach to pet and release into the wild! Pet location can be determined via the website:
As well as building the prototype, Andy set up a website interface with a secure log-in, so that you could easily view the information being relayed from the tracker. The website was set up to display a default 24 hour time period, but with the option to select other periods of 3, 6 and 12 days. You could zoom in and out on the map to interrogate the locations recorded, with a green marker indicating the last recorded location of your 'smart collar wearing' pet.
The prototype and the web page thus gave an end to end user experience of the business idea that the girls' were presenting, all working, in real time.
Andy also supplied additional technical information on the prototype build for their presentation, to explain how the real product could be made lighter and smaller. The girls also thought about how they would package the chip to make sure it was protected from the weather, and considered different sizes of collar depending on the pet.
Their plan also included the development of a mobile app, based on the functionality of the webpages.
Abbie and Maddie produced a video as part of their entry, which they created themselves, and some presentation slides, detailing the problem they were looking to solve, their target audience and pricing for their smart collar and app.
I'm delighted to say that Abbie and Maddie were awarded 2nd place in the final of their competition, held in mid-July. It was really impressive - especially as they were presenting amongst entrants much older; the age range was from 12 - 19 years old.
Andy, Abbie & Maddie at the Sondrel office in Theale
They both showed great intelligence, enthusiasm, and initiative in contacting a company to help them work through and evidence their business idea. This competition has introduced them to many aspects of business - including chip design - and what goes into creating a business plan. They have identified a current problem and have come up with a product to to help solve this problem. They have considered how a product is built to suit its functionality, how much it will cost, ease of use for the end-user, and how to present and market the product.
And a big 'thank-you' to Andy for helping the girls in his spare time, turning their idea into a working model to present to the judges.
We all hope that they will be inspired to come up with many more 'smart' ideas in the future. You never know, they could be coming back to Sondrel as customers one day!
You can download a case study of an IoT Project that Sondrel has executed for a client here:
Success through Partnership is the philosophy of Sondrel, one of the world’s leading system-to-silicon IC consultancies. For Sondrel, Partnership means sharing the responsibility to get a project done for the mutual benefit of all parties – customer, design house, foundries and tools & IP providers. Established in 2002, Sondrel has the largest and most experienced consulting team in Europe, with wide ranging expertise across all aspects of the design flow and all industry-standard EDA tool suits. The company’s capabilities cover the entire IC design spectrum from concept to validated silicon. Sondrel is experienced in highly-complex digital, mixed signal, low power and wireless designs having completed over 300 designs at a range of process geometries down to 14nm, all of which were delivered right first time. With offices in EMEA and China Sondrel provides flexible services and methodology consulting to many of the world’s leading semiconductor companies, enabling them to improve chip performance and reduce timescales and costs.