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How to not design IoT Products which Fail

October 04, 2018
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By Cheryl Ajluni, Leader, IoT Solutions, Keysight Technologies

No one sets out to build an Internet of Things (IoT) product that will fail, but it could happen. From smart locks that can be hacked in  no time at all to the recall of 440,000 smart smoke and CO detectors, the instances of IoT device failures are many.

When that failure is one off and can be easily fixed by exchanging the faulty product, the impact on a company’s brand and its bottom line may be minimal. But when those IoT products are installed in hard to reach places or in harsh environments then the outcome is unpredictable. When these products fail, a company’s success or failure may be on the line.

It’s a scenario that is very much a reality today as the spread of IoT picks up steam and IoT devices find their way into some highly intriguing applications in hard to reach locations. Smart farming offers a perfect case in point, with IoT sensors now being deployed in a range of applications designed to make agricultural production more productive and sustainable. They are used to track moisture levels in soil, weed crops, help chicken eggs hatch, and even to monitor the health of cows destined for the dinner table.

In this “smart cow” application, IoT sensors are implanted in multiple locations under the cow’s skin. The process requires a minor surgery with anesthetic. Once operational, the sensors are expected to operate without fail for at least 3 years. During that time, they track a range of things, such as the cow’s behavior temperature, which is one of the main indicators of diseases.

It sounds simple enough, but because the sensors are located inside the cow, they cannot be easily accessed unless something goes wrong. The sheer weight of the cows and their habit of continually rubbing up against objects poses another problem. What happens when an adult cow, weighing upwards of 1,800 lbs, decides to rub a part of its body where a sensor is located? Will the sensor get damaged?

These are valid questions and point to a key differentiator between IoT devices that fail and those that succeed. Successful IoT products are intentionally designed not to fail—not just in the lab under ideal test conditions, but in the real world where many factors conspire to make them do that.

Following are the five key factors that can make IoT devices fail in the real world and possible solutions on how to navigate the pitfalls:

Congestion and Load Troubles

From the moment a new IoT device is powered on, there may be hundreds of other IoT devices in its general vicinity. On one smart farm alone, there could be a herd of cattle (each with multiple implanted IoT sensors); sensors for measuring soil, plant and environmental variables; sensors for remote animal monitoring; farm bots, and farm drones, including any IoT devices that the farmer might be carrying. The congestion might impede the devices’ ability to operate normally. A dramatic rise in network traffic has a similar effect, forcing the IoT device to continually retransmit data. Its battery may drain quicker than expected, or make it fail altogether.

To avoid these failures, product makers should test the ability of their IoT devices to operate normally with a traffic load comparable to that expected in the target environment. That testing should also be done while simulating different traffic types.


Dense IoT device deployments, with many devices operating on the same crowded bands—such as the ones that might be possible in a large farm operation increases the chances of interference between devices. Many of these devices can’t detect one another, let alone cooperatively share the airwaves, forcing some to behave in unexpected ways.

To avoid these issues, co-existence testing is essential. It can help product makers determine a device’s tolerance to other radio signals and ensure that a certain level of operation is possible, despite it operating in the presence of alternate radio protocols. IoT devices should also be challenged to see if they can cope with the many amplitudes, data rates, and protocols they will likely encounter in the real world.

Roaming Difficulties

Wireless IoT devices often roam from one location to another. That can be problematic if they haven’t been designed with robust roaming algorithms to minimize roam delay and avoid outages. An outage of just a few seconds can result in a loss of valuable data. Congestion and interference have a dramatic impact on how well roaming algorithms work, making testing under real network conditions critical to preventing a device failure. Even in the smart farm scenario, implanting an IoT device in a cow only makes sense if that device can continually provide data that a farmer can access.

Testing IoT devices for roaming handoff behavior in a variety of challenging conditions is one way to prevent this failure. Simulating the device’s antenna to ensure it can handle roaming, while coping with the volume and mix of traffic found in the real world, is also advisable.

Interoperability with Network Infrastructure

One day an IoT device may work as expected. The next day it may act erratically or stop working altogether. Chances are the issue isn’t the device, but rather a result of the user updating the firmware on their wireless access points (APs). A slight change in the network infrastructure turns a perfectly working IoT device into one that’s not recognized by the target environment. Fortunately, a protocol compliance test suite can provide an effective defense against this type of failure, assuming it tests against all defined functions of a device’s wireless protocol, and not just a small subset.

Security Breaches

Apart from this, they are looking for a way to exploit the device’s lax security to gain a backdoor onto a network. That’s what can happen when a device is roaming and experiences interference. That interference can overwhelm the device and cause it to enter fault states, resulting in long connection delays and making it temporarily vulnerable to hacking. Using a test suite with the ability to simulate roaming behavior in a cluttered radio frequency (RF) environment is one way to stop this scenario.

As more consumers come to rely on the power of the IoT, increasing pressure will mount on product makers to ensure their products are reliable. For those companies looking to build IoT products that won’t fail, the solution lies in thoroughly understanding a product’s deployment environment and performing the right type of testing to make sure it can withstand the factors conspiring to make it fail. Whether those devices will be used for smart cows, in medical monitoring devices or anything in between, businesses that opt to make reliability a top priority are sure to ride the wave of opportunity in the growing IoT market.

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