Nordic's Bluetooth and Cellular oriented System on Chips (SoCs) are at the forefront of modern consumer and industrial communication. They use little power, but are capable of working with a vast array of peripherals.
Take, for example, the Nordic Semiconductor nRF9160 System in Package (SiP). It works with NFC and can use GPS location and other cellular connection options while taking local sensor readings and providing feedback via its general-purpose input/output (GPIO) pins.
It's a versatile chip used throughout the consumer electronics market, but how do you get started using something like this? Luckily Nordic have come up with the perfect development package for the nRF9160 in the Thingy:91
What is the Nordic Thingy:91?
The Thingy:91 packs a lot into a tiny space. Just shy of 6 x 6 cm when in its plastic case and soft silicone cover, it's a tiny PCB incorporating an array of sensors, connectivity options, and an onboard single cell LiPo battery.
At its core, the Thingy:91 is an evaluation board for the nRF9160 SiP. Where other eval boards come with limited connectivity options spread across large footprint PCBs, the Thingy goes in the opposite direction. Within its tiny frame, it houses antennas for GPS, LTE-M, NB-IoT, and NFC communication. It also has environmental sensors for temperature, humidity, air quality, and air pressure. Motion sensing comes courtesy of low-powered and high-g accelerometers, and the board can sense both light and color.
Finally, a secondary nRF52840 SoC acts as a board controller, a chip powerful enough to stand alone with BLE communication and many I/O options.
Nordic Thingy:91 Specs
The full specs of the Thingy:91 encompass the nRF9160 SiP, the nRF52840 board controller, and the various peripherals crammed into the small pcb.
- Battery-operated prototyping platform for the nRF9160 SiP
- 700-960 MHz + 1710-2200 MHz LTE band support
- Certifications: FCC (USA), CE (EUR)
- nRF52840 board controller
- LTE-M/NB-IoT/GPS, Bluetooth LE and NFC antennas
- Nano/4FF SIM card slot
- User-programmable button and RGB LEDs
- Environmental sensor for temperature, humidity, air quality and air pressure, plus a color and light sensor
- 4 x N-MOS transistors for external DC motors or LEDs
- Rechargeable Li-Po battery with 1440 mAh capacity
- Certified for global operation
- GCF, PTCRB
- FCC (USA), CE (EUR), ISED (CAN), ACMA RCM (AUS), NCC (TWN), IMDA (SGP), MIC (JPN), MSIP (KOR)
- Multimode LTE-M/NB-IoT modem
- 700-2200 MHz LTE band support
- 23 dBm output power
- eDRX and PSM power saving modes
- Coverage enhancement modes
- Single pin 50 Ω antenna interface
- UICC interface
- Application processor
- 64 MHz Arm® Cortex®-M33 CPU
- Arm TrustZone® for trusted execution
- Arm CryptoCell 310 for application layer security
- 1 MB Flash & 256 KB RAM
- 4 x SPI/UART/TWI, PDM, I2S, PWM, ADC
- Board controller
- Bluetooth LE and NFC support
- 64 MHz Arm Cortex-M4F CPU
- 1 MB Flash & 256 KB RAM
What Can You Do With the Nordic Thingy:91?
The Thingy:91 allows for so many possible projects that it can be a little hard to know where to start. The Nordic website has a complete getting started guide, and the full software stack required to program the nRF series is freely available.
That said, there is an even easier way to get started thanks to Nordic's example projects.
Getting Started with Thingy:91 - The Asset Tracker
The Thingy:91 comes preloaded with a simple asset tracking demo, which demonstrates how the nRF9160 can transmit GPS position data along with sensor readings to Nordic's nRF Cloud IoT cloud service.
This video pair with the official asset tracker tutorial to give a basic overview of how nRF9160 based projects are structured.
A Full Application: nRF Pizza
To really show off everything the Thingy:91 can do, Nordic created nRF Pizza. It's an entire mock delivery tracking service blending an online Pizza ordering system with the GPS tracking and sensor capabilities of the hardware development kit. The video shows the service in action, allowing the customer to monitor the temperature and location of the pizza in real time, and also detects whether the pizza has been flipped over in transit.
What makes this especially useful to those looking to develop cloud-based applications with hardware, sensor-based endpoints is the fact that the whole project is available to download from the NordicPlayground GitHub page. Most development kits come with some example code, but it's very rare to get such a complete picture of what a complete product could look like!
Other Great Uses for the Thingy:91
Despite how thorough the nRF Pizza example is, there are still other great possibilities for the Thingy:91 it doesn't touch on. For example, the NFC reader opens up a huge range of location-based logging possibilities - everything from large-scale inventory management to a digital scavenger hunt!
An even simpler form of sensor-based digital tagging could be achieved with the color sensor. For example, if you color code items, you could use the sensor and GPS tracking to confirm that pre-categorized items are where you think they are.
In principle, this could be a super cheap way to inventorize a small business or even your stuff while moving house!
Who Is the Nordic Thingy:91 For?
The Thingy:91 is designed for both hobby and professional developers looking for a cheap, compact way to learn about the nRF9160 SiP and its capabilities. Not only does it pack in a decent array of sensors and input/output options, but it also comes with a SIM card so you can get started straight away.
If you've never used a microcontroller evaluation board before, you'd be far better off getting an Arduino or Micro:Bit to learn the basics from a beginner's perspective. However, if you've already got some experience developing for hardware, the Thingy:91 is the perfect next step and gives you valuable experience with a popular, industry-standard Nordic chipset.
From its form factor to its sample code, the Thingy:91 is one of the easiest professional-level kits to use. Powerful yet low-powered enough to run on batteries, there are few better ways to learn the basics of programmable GPS location-based hardware or prototype a new product idea.