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BBC turns micro:bit computers into IoT devices

The BBC and Nominet demonstrate a new use case for the micro:bit computer and hope to turn Britain’s schoolchildren into internet of things pioneers

The BBC, along with Lancaster University and Nominet, has demonstrated a prototype method for safely and securely turning its micro:bit children’s computer into an internet of things (IoT) device.

The micro:bit was launched in 2015 under the BBC’s Make it Digital initiative to encourage young people to study science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects. Billed as a spiritual successor to the 1980s BBC Micro, it measures 4cm by 5cm and connects to devices such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi. It already incorporates Bluetooth Smart technology for connectivity purposes.

Researchers have now come up with a way to enable data packets to be transmitted between micro:bits. Nominet said its method would create opportunities for young coders and teach children about the complexities of how the internet works and how to deploy IoT sensor networks.

Adam Leach, Nominet director of research and development, said the initial motivation behind the project was to extend Nominet’s IoT expertise. “We have built a strong set of tools that enable IoT applications and now we are on a mission to establish other use cases,” he said. “This project with the BBC will really show what our technology can do.”

Nominet, which is best known for its stewardship of the UK’s internet domain name registration system, is diversifying into emerging areas of connectivity, and sees the IoT as something that can play a strategic role in its future.

Safety and security a priority

To operate in schools with young children, the system must be both simple and safe. Additionally, said Nominet, the architecture of a micro:bit IoT network will be substantially different to conventional IoT networks, because all the code needs to be written on the micro:bits.

Nominet’s proposal will see data packets sent to micro:bits addressed with a unique handle assigned by the student, meaning no personally identifiable data is ever stored.

“We introduced privacy by design by making sure personal data wasn’t part of the system in the first place,” said Leach. “We don’t want the name, password or email address of anybody using a micro:bit.”

Each child will also have access to a private friends list, in which they list the handles they are happy to receive data packets from.

Connectivity will be delivered through a Raspberry Pi acting as a gateway. Nominet will provide disk images for the Raspberry Pis, so they require no coding and little configuration, merely a Wi-Fi connection.

Once connected to the system, the user can choose their handle through the gateway and associate it with their micro:bit. The handle is disposable and transferrable between micro:bits.

Behind the scenes, Nominet’s existing IoT tools will serve as the back-end infrastructure for the whole enterprise, with its IoT registry storing system configuration data and providing an abstraction layer between devices and services, while a bridge handles message routing and permission checks in Nominet’s IoT system.

The system is set up by assembling these relatively simple building blocks, so the researchers were able to achieve complex functionality without having to write a line of application-specific code.

Use cases that spark a child’s interest

The presentation set out a number of simple IoT use cases that young programmers could get up and running with relative ease, such as using the micro:bit’s on-board accelerometer to detect when a younger sibling opened their bedroom door.

Alternative, a system could be built to aggregate temperature data from dozens of micro:bits placed around classrooms to monitor average temperatures – introducing ideas around how the IoT might be useful in the wider world of climatology.

Leach said that while other use cases demonstrated by Nominet – which have included smart parking apps and a crowdsourced flood warning network – had explored relatively well-accepted applications for the IoT, the potential inherent in using the BBC micro:bit was limited only by the imagination of an eight-year-old child.

“We’re going to enable a lot of really creative people to go off and build interesting things, so additionally, this is a test of what needs to be in place to support that creativity,” he said.

Read more about the BBC’s Make it Digital programme

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