Blockchain in Embedded Systems and Devices: Security, Reliability & Efficiency

Blockchain technology can vastly improve the security, reliability and efficiency of embedded devices within the Internet of Things (IoT). In this post, I describe how blockchain works and its benefits for embedded devices and systems. I also interviewed Sven Liess from e-Gits for the post. 

In this article:

What is blockchain in IoT?

Blockchain in IoT allows engineers to use blockchain data sharing to enable IoT devices to communicate with each other. The devices do that without using any central network. The blockchain’s distributed network of computer systems allows those communications to be tamper-proof.

The Internet of Things will expand to hundreds of billions or even trillions of devices. But currently, most of those devices communicate through centralized computing systems, and those communications sometimes fail. Hackers cause many other problems. And costs are huge. On the other hand, blockchain avoids that by creating a digital ledger of data, such as transactions. Each data block builds on the previous one by verifying it and building on the blockchain. 

A 2015 IBM report, “Device Democracy: Saving the Future of the Internet of Things,” pointed out how IoT would face trouble if it continued to rely on a centralized way of networking.

“Many existing IoT solutions are expensive because of the high infrastructure and maintenance costs associated with centralized clouds and large server farms, in addition to the service costs of middlemen,” the report noted.

The use of blockchain can solve those problems. It allows IoT devices to communicate with each other securely and quickly.

How does blockchain work in embedded systems and devices?

Blockchain works in embedded systems that are part of IoT. For example, an embedded device in your home’s thermostat will enable you to control the thermostat with your mobile phone. 

That means your phone will use blockchain to communicate with the thermostat more directly, without needing to use a centralized network of computer servers.

Basics of blockchain for IoT

Many people think of blockchain only as the foundation of cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. But the same features that work for cryptocurrency can also benefit how devices work with the Internet of Things. And how they communicate with each other.

That’s because of how blockchain technology works. It creates a distributed digital ledger of transactions that all users share. So, the data is not in one place on one server but in every node that is part of the network. The technology uses cryptography to identify and authenticate anyone in the network who is adding a transaction to the ledger. Nodes on the network then must approve the addition to that ledger. 

All of this means that the data is tamper-proof. It allows for efficient verification for embedded systems within IoT. And it therefore enables IoT devices to use the technology to communicate securely.

IoT manufacturers can use blockchain technology to track and coordinate billions of connected devices. The technology allows for communications and transactions among devices that save manufacturers significant amounts of money.

A recent white paper from the Mphasis IT services company highlights the transaction savings created with blockchain technology. The paper, titled “Framework for Integration of Blockchain with IoT Devices,” includes this key passage:

“Applying a reliable peer-to-peer communication model to process the trillions of transactions between devices will drastically reduce the costs related to installing and maintaining large, centralized data centers and will distribute computation and storage needs across the billions of devices that consist IoT networks. This will prevent failure in any single node in a network from bringing the entire network to a tentative collapse.”

IoT and blockchain convergence

The features of blockchain and the needs of IoT are driving the convergence of the technologies. For example, blockchain eliminates any single point of failure, like with a central computer server. That greatly benefits IoT devices.

The IoT devices can then use blockchain to create and monitor interactions among devices through what are known as “smart contracts.” A smart contract is something that happens when a specific condition occurs. In essence, computer code within the blockchain says, “If this happens, then this will automatically happen.”

A grocer, for example, can send automatic payment when a frozen food shipment arrives at a grocer’s dock. Or the grocer can automatically pay a specified amount less for the frozen food if IoT sensors indicate temperature requirements for the food were not maintained in the entire supply line.

Benefits of using blockchain in embedded systems and devices

Blockchain provides many benefits to embedded systems within the Internet of Things. For example, blockchain improves security. It also makes automation more efficient and saves money.

Here are more detailed benefits of using blockchain in embedded systems and devices:

  • Better security: IoT manufacturers have long worried about security. Those concerns are only increasing as the number of IoT devices expands. IoT devices that communicate through a central server system are subject to security issues with that central server.

    With Blockchain, many or all nodes on the network must validate a new transfer of data before that transfer happens. That makes it very difficult for a false transaction to occur. That means IoT devices can communicate much more securely. (You can learn more about how hackers work to get access to and tamper with embedded devices. And learn more about ways to protect your devices from hackers. You also learn more in general about security for embedded devices.)
  • Better automation: Not having to use a centralized way of communicating also means more efficient automation. Devices will communicate with each other more simply and more quickly.
  • Better reliability: The more direct communication between the devices means fewer chances for failures in the system. Communication between devices becomes more reliable. 
  • Reduced costs:  Many IoT devices communicate with each other non-stop. That means trillions of transactions. Without blockchain, that also means large, centralized data centers that cost huge amounts of money. Blockchain allows for much easier peer-to-peer communication that can significantly reduce costs. In addition, the decreased chance of network failures also reduces costs.

The Mphasis white paper underscored how invaluable blockchain could be for the future of IoT in these areas.

“Blockchain technology is the missing link to resolve privacy and reliability concerns on the IoT,” the paper states. “Blockchain technology is the silver shot needed by the IoT industry. It can be used in tracking billions of connected devices, allowing the processing of transactions and harmonization between devices. This allows for significant savings for IoT industry creators. This decentralized approach would wipe out single points of failure, creating a more robust ecosystem for the devices.”

Challenges of blockchain in embedded systems and devices

Using blockchain for embedded systems and IoT devices also creates some challenges. Those challenges include requirements for a lot of processing power and data storage. Potential legal and compliance issues can also present challenges.

Here are details on the challenges of using blockchain in embedded systems and devices:

  • Processing power that blockchain requires and the energy it consumes: Engineers build many embedded devices and systems to use very little power. (You can learn more about the design process engineers use to build embedded systems.) But it can take significant processing power to make blockchain work. For example, each node in the network must perform encryption on the system’s transactions.

    Devices with IoT have a wide range of computing capabilities. Unfortunately, the processing demand can cause problems for many of them. (You can learn more about processing power issues and choosing the best central processing unit for your embedded device.)
  • Data storage that blockchain requires: Blockchain also requires significant storage. Blockchain ends the requirement that a central server store the transactions. But that means the transaction ledger must live on the network nodes themselves. And that ledger continues to grow. Unfortunately, many embedded devices have very low data storage capacity.
  • Your team will need blockchain knowledge and skills:  Few people, including embedded engineers, understand blockchain very well. Even fewer understand how blockchain can work in embedded systems and the IoT. So, if your company wants to pursue using blockchain, you’ll need to hire people who have blockchain knowledge and skills, or you’ll need to train your current staff.
  • Legal and compliance questions: Blockchain is still new in many industries, especially in the Internet of Things. No one has figured out all of the legal and compliance issues and questions. As a result, many companies may hesitate to move fully into the market.

Pros and cons of blockchain for embedded devices in IoT

Blockchain for Embedded Pros and Cons

Use cases for blockchain in embedded systems and devices

Use cases abound for blockchain in embedded systems and devices. For example, you can use blockchain to track vehicle service and ownership. In supply chains, you can track parts and payments securely and efficiently. And Walmart found a use case with produce, requiring suppliers to track it from farm to store.  

Here are more detailed use cases of blockchain in embedded systems and devices:

  • Security for IoT: Virtually any use of blockchain will increase the information’s security. In the Internet of Things, blockchain avoids any single point of failure and thwarts hackers.
  • Automotive records:  Blockchain can help IoT devices track the maintenance and owner history of a particular car. It could track all original parts and when and where replacements were installed. It could follow updates to computerized components. It could track all purchases of the car and transfers of its title, and all accidents or repairs.
  • Car insurance: With permission from car owners, car insurers could use data from a car to assess driving habits. They could track how often the car’s speed was above 80 mph. They could track other driving habits and base coverage options and insurance discounts on those habits. 
  • E-currency for embedded systems and devices: Embedded devices using blockchain could make automatic payments in exchange for verified services. Your streaming service box connected to your television will make automatic payments to streaming services you use or other purchases you make through the device. You might be able to make automatic payments just by driving your car. That could include charges for tolls, gas and food.
  • Tracking and verifying environmental sensors: Blockchain in embedded devices might help government agencies and environmental watchdogs track ground, air or water pollution at an industrial site. Monitors could continuously track pollution levels and take certain actions or produce reports when those levels rise above a set level.
  • Car sharing: Blockchain in embedded and IoT systems could allow people to use a car or truck based on communications and permissions through a smartphone app. That could mean car-sharing could take place outside of current car-sharing platforms and companies.
  • Tracking and monitoring parts in the supply chain: Embedded devices using blockchain could help track and monitor goods throughout the supply chain. It could help prove that a certain factory produced a part at a certain time. It could track that part as it moves through the supply chain. It could follow all environmental and other conditions that might be required to maintain the part’s usefulness or value.
  • Payments based on supply chain tracking:  Embedded devices using blockchain could also make payments based on tracking supply chain goods. Sensors in goods that arrive at a manufacturing plant could automatically trigger payment for those goods. 
  • Tracking produce, including leafy greens: In 2019, Walmart started requiring its suppliers to implement a blockchain-based tracking system to track leafy greens from the farm to the store. The system helps assess the freshness of the greens and can help prevent and manage outbreaks of foodborne illnesses.
  • Operating irrigation systems: Embedded devices using blockchain could help operate irrigation systems. They could turn on, turn off or adjust irrigation systems based on moisture detected by sensors throughout a field of crops. 
  • Operating oil platforms: Embedded devices using blockchain could also monitor and change operations on an oil platform based on changing weather conditions.
  • Smart manufacturing plants: Blockchain can help embedded devices in smart manufacturing plants place orders for equipment parts. The part orders could happen automatically based on what sensors are detecting in the equipment.
  • Repairs for fleet vehicles: Embedded devices using blockchain and sensors could report when a truck part needs replacing before that truck part fails and causes a breakdown. 
  • Automated detergent ordering for washing machines: Samsung has already manufactured a washing machine, back in 2014, that could automatically reorder detergent from a supplier when its sensors detected it was low on detergent. The machine, the WW9000, also automatically reorders service parts.

Example of an embedded system using blockchain in logistics

One example features a standard IoT messaging protocol called MQTT. This protocol helps connect remote devices with minimal network bandwidth. MQTT helps drive embedded devices in many industries, including manufacturing, oil and gas, and automotive.

With Qt tools and blockchain technology, MQTT can also help enable secure communication throughout the supply chain. For example, a sensor sends environmental data using Qt Bluetooth, transmitting it to the cloud via MQTT. The system then uses Etherium Blockchain to secure the data of the decentralized edge devices.

Qt leads on embedded security

Qt is an industry leader and pioneer in security for embedded devices and systems. In fact, the founder of Bitcoin—a person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto—used Qt to create the first Bitcoin wallet, called the Bitcoin Qt wallet, in 2009. Today, Qt enables a single software code across all operating systems, platforms and screen types, from desktops and embedded systems to wearables and mobile devices connected to the Internet of Things.

As a result, we offer the best possible security for embedded devices. You see it Qt action by watching this 77-second video on securing Qt applications and devices.