What Are IoT Development Boards and Shields?

IoT development boards are driving IoT innovation today. These low-power, low-profile computers are portable and flexible, giving developers and hobbyists a great starting point for creating and testing mobile IoT devices. Several of the more popular boards, such as Raspberry Pi, have active online communities where developers can share successes, ask questions, or collaborate on projects. This kind of atmosphere fuels rapid growth in the development of new IoT solutions.

Most IoT development boards include Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, but if you want to add cellular connectivity to an IoT development board, you might need an IoT shield. Breakout boards (sometimes called shields, HATs, or bonnets) are add-on devices that make it possible to control an IoT device via cellular protocols such as 4G, NB-IoT, or LTE Cat M-1. 

There are a couple types of IoT development boards out there today, and many different brands and models to choose from in each category. To help you decide which board is right for your project, we’ve created this comprehensive guide. 

Click the links to jump to what you want to know:

Types of IoT Development Boards

What to Look for in an IoT Development Board

Microcontrollers and SBCs:

Arduino MKR 1400 GSM

Shiratech Stinger96

Pycom GPy

Sodaq SARA SFF R412M

Nordic nRF9160-DK

Poem DASH

The nRF9160 Feather IoT Development Board

Icarus IoT Board

Breakout Boards:

Advanced BLE-CELL (ABC Board)

Botletics SIM7000 Arduino Shield

SparkFun LTE CAT M1/NB-IoT Shield

Mikroe LTE IoT 2 Click

Hologram Nova

Types of IoT Development Boards

Not all IoT development boards include the same capabilities. Let’s take a closer look at these components:

Single Board Computers (SBCs)

SBCs offer the power and capabilities of a computer on a single circuit board. Typically, an SBC includes a microprocessor, memory, input/output (I/O), and sometimes read-only memory (ROM). IoT development boards cannot be upgraded like full-size PCs, but they give developers a lot of flexibility because they’re small (some even pocket-sized) and power efficient. 

Single Board Microcontrollers

While microcontrollers are technically computers, with the same microprocessor, memory, and I/O components, they differ from SBCs in that they’re typically programmed directly without the use of an operating system (OS). A microcontroller typically has much less RAM than an SBC, with more limited storage and speed. However, microcontrollers use much less power, meaning they can achieve a much longer battery life and are better suited to certain IoT applications as a result.

IoT Breakout Boards

IoT shields are add-on boards that grant further connectivity capabilities to microcontrollers and SBCs. For example, if you have a Raspberry Pi, you can purchase add-on cards to allow your SBC to connect via different cellular protocols, such as GPRS, 3G, 4G/LTE, LTE-M, and NB-IoT.

What to Look for in an IoT Development Board

With so many boards and kits on the market today, choosing the best one for your project can be a daunting task. Start by considering your specific needs. For example, if you want to build a smart home device that controls both the lighting and HVAC settings throughout your house, you’ll need more computing power than if you want the device to manage a single switch. Here are a few variables to consider when you’re shopping for the perfect IoT board:

Size

IoT boards range from about one inch to several inches across. The ideal size of your IoT board depends on its intended use case—if you need to embed it in a watch or other wearable device, for example, you’ll want to choose a smaller board such as the PocketBeagle.

Features

Most current cellular IoT boards include industrial modems, advanced firmware, power management, and full certification. As such, the top cellular boards can meet demands both large and small—hobbyists as well as those who hope to move to production at scale could use the same technology.

Still, you’ll want to make sure your board of choice has the technical capabilities you need. Look at variables such as battery life, programming language, and access to tutorials and a developer community where you can find support as you build a device.

Cost

Today’s high-quality IoT development boards are quite affordable, with an average cost of around $100. If your board doesn’t include cellular connectivity and you want to add it, make sure to consider the additional cost of an IoT shield. Shield costs range from around $20 to $100, depending on the brand and cellular standard(s) it enables.

Connectivity

Decide which connectivity protocol or standard you’ll need for your project and look for a board that provides it or is compatible with an add-on shield. Most of the boards on our list below include support for LTE-M and NB-IoT, but with lack of ubiquitous NB-IoT and LTE-M coverage, we see more manufacturers releasing new boards that support 4G Cat-1. 

13 Best IoT Development Boards and Breakout Boards

To help you decide which cellular board is right for your project, we’ve compiled the following list of eleven of the best cellular IoT development boards and shields available. For convenience, the list is grouped according to type.

Microcontrollers and SBCs

Arduino is no stranger to cellular. They've created 3 generations of the GSM Shield and maintained an official GSM Arduino library. However, after retiring the GSM Shield, they did not have another proper cellular solution. Not officially on this list, but a close relation is the Arduino MKR 1500 LTE-M and NB-IoT. The growing popularity and support with Arduino mean MKR boards will make many future lists as well. Fabio Violante, the CEO of Arduino, had this to say about the MKR 1500, the Arduino LTE board:

"NB-IoT and CAT M1 are gradually becoming a reality in many countries in the world. With MKR NB 1500 we wanted to create a versatile and standard technology to democratize the access to the new networks, enabling our customers to take advantage of this big opportunity early on."

Looking at the MKR 1400 specs, we find the popular SAMD21 chip, which integrates seamlessly with the Arduino IDE and online Code Editor. For cellular connectivity, Arduino integrated the automotive grade U-Blox SARA-U201 which provides worldwide 2G/3G compatibility. We enjoyed the integrated LiPo battery support. Cellular boards commonly require more power than what USB offers (500 mA). Some cellular IoT development boards require a LiPo power in addition to USB power when programming. The MKR 1400 is capable of being entirely powered by the USB making those of us who do not have a spare LiPo laying around appreciative.The MKR 1400 firmware is well organized and modular. Arduino has open sourced their cellular library under GNU Lesser General Public License and is available at the MKRGSM GitHub repo. Sandeep Mistry is the talented lead software engineer behind the library (@sandeepmistry).

  • Price: $69
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: 2G and 3G

The Arduino MKR 1400 GSM is available for $69 from the Arduino Store and all major online resellers.

Shiratech Stinger96

The Stinger96 board from Shiratech supports 96Boards IoT Edition (IE) mezzanines via the Low Speed expansion connector as well as connectivity using the Quectel BG96 NB-IoT modem. It comes equipped with the energy-efficient and performance-rich STM32MP157 SoC with dual Arm Cortex-A7 and Cortex-M4 Cores, along with Running Yocto, a Linux distribution designed for IoT and embedded software. It also includes 2 Micro USB connectors, a micro SIM connector, and a micro SD card connector.

  • Price: $168
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE-M, NB-IoT, 3G, and 2G

Pycom GPy

Pycom is well known for their WiPy and LoPy boards, which pack a ton of functionality into a tiny package. In 2017, Pycom announced some newcomers to their line-up in the GPy and FiPy. Although Pycom announced these boards in a 2017 Kickstarter, we included them in this list because general availability and functional firmware did not come to market until 2018. Now that we've had time with these boards, we have seen the devices perform well on our test benches.

Fred de Haro, the CEO of Pycom, chatted with us about the decision to integrate cellular:

"At Pycom we believe in giving our customers a choice of [technology] used for their IoT deployments. As such, developing a module able to offer BLE, WIFi and new LTE-M / NB modules was critical to our product strategy. The GPy is able to connect to any LTE-M/NB Cellular network wherever your IoT deployments take you. In addition, the low power consumption the modules offers reduces the need to [recharge via a base station]."

The Pycom GPy is a little powerhouse containing an Espressif ESP32 microcontroller, Sequans Monarch cellular chipset, 8MB of flash, and 4MB of RAM. The Espressif ESP32 is a popular dual-core microcontroller and acts as the main MCU as well as providing WiFi b/g/n and BLE 4.2 support. The GPy was the first small footprint development board to offer support for the new LTE-M and NB-IoT cellular networks. LTE-M support is via the Sequans Monarch Cellular IoT chipset. This chipset is affordable and available today. First to market devices such as these come with unique challenges. Initial units lacked robust libraries, which made programming LTE communication difficult. As Pycom became familiar with the Sequans chip, their LTE library became a reality. It is now possible to communicate over LTE-M and NB-IoT securely. Special recognition goes to Daniel Campora (@danielpycom) and Jose Marcelino (@jmarcelino) who created the LTE library and kept the community updated with progress.

  • Price: $81 ($52 board + $29 shield)
  • Language: MicroPython
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE-M and NB-IoT

The Pycom GPy is available for $52, and we recommend one of Pycom's expansion boards to program over USB (~$29). Both are available from the Pycom website and all major online resellers. Pycom has not sought certification for all their hardware, so make sure you consider that when you’re considering them.

Sodaq SARA SFF R412M

The R412M is a tiny IoT development board—roughly the size of a matchbox. It supports LTE-M and NB-IoT and Arduino compatible providing coverage across North America, Europe, Asia and Africa with EGPRS fallback available in other regions. The power consumption is so low, it can be supported by solar and has a wide range of quality modules that make the board versatile across many different applications.

  • Price: €115
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: North America, Europe, Asia, Africa
  • Compatibility: LTE-M, NB-IoT
  • The Sodaq SARA SFF R412M can be purchased for €115 on the official Sodaq store.

Nordic nRF9160-DK

Nordic has a tremendous history of providing low-power, robust, and developer friendly IoT modules. With the nRF91 Series, they’ve freshly entered into cellular IoT/M2M with a module built from first principles for the next generation of Cat-M1 and NB-IoT networks.The nRF9160 module itself is built specifically for energy efficiency making it perfect for battery-driven use cases. Nordic has not only set the standard for small form factors with their SiP module, but they’ve packed a ton of functionality in there as well such as GPS, an application processor, and I/O. The nRF9160-DK is a single-board cellular IoT development kit for LTE-M, NB-IoT, GPS and Bluetooth LE. The nRF9160-DK supports a wide range of applications from asset tracking and smart ag to wearables and medical. This kit uses the nRF9160 SiP and is hardware compatible with Arduino Uno and allows access to all I/O and interfaces via connectors. It has 4 LEDs, 2 buttons and 2 switches, which are user-programmable.

Poem DASH

The Poem DASH (formerly the Hologram DASH) gives developers a fully open-source platform for testing applications and moving them to market. The DASH simplifies connectivity, using GPIO pins and serial interfaces to grant embedded applications access to sensors and peripherals. The platform’s low energy and battery monitoring features make it an ideal choice for low-power applications. You can choose from two versions—one certified on all major cellular carriers with the exception of Verizon, and the other version on all carriers including Verizon. Both DASH versions include a Hologram IoT SIM card and access to a free developer account to test and develop your portal. 

  • Price: $105
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: 2G, 3G, NB-IoT, LTE Cat-M1

The nRF9160 Feather IoT Development Board


Created by developer Jared Wolff, the nRF9160 Feather IoT Development Board allows engineers to create IoT projects of all kinds, including remote monitoring and control, pet tracking, and air quality detection. The board is compatible with Zephyr RTOS, ideal for embedded development, and it’s a low-energy computer that can be put into “sleep” mode to save power. The Feather also works without batteries when connected to AC/DC power via micro-USB cable or 5V pin. It also comes with a 4MB external flash drive for storing data while the device is offline, a Hologram Hyper Nano SIM (4FF), and a cellular flex antenna.

  • Price: $99
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE Cat-M1, NB-IoT

Icarus IoT Board

A low-cost IoT board in Adafruit’s FeatherWing form factor, the Icarus from Actinius is built on Nordic Semi’s nRF9160 modem and includes LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT cellular connectivity, along with GPS, accelerometer, USB connection, and a LiPo charger—along with an eSIM with 3 months of free data (in countries they support) and a Nano SIM connector. The Icarus is a good choice for applications that require both GPS and cellular data, and you can add additional components using extension pins. 

  • Price: €100
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE-M, NB-IoT, GPS

Breakout Boards 

Advanced BLE-CELL (ABC Board)

The ABC Board from Contextual Electronics builds out a Raspberry Pi HAT with Bluetooth and cellular on it. This board provides support for the Nordic Semiconductor nRF52840 ARM Cortex-M4F CPU, and supports a range of hardware features including gpio, flash, i2c, and spi.

Developers can take a course through Contextual Electronics and learn how to build it out, or choose to purchase the pre-assembled board (available in Q2 of 2021).

  • Language: C
  • Compatibility: BLE and cellular

Botletics SIM7000 Arduino Shield


Botletics is a newcomer to the cellular manufacturing arena. Founded by Timothy Woo (@botletics), they've introduced two cellular shields which are rapidly growing in popularity in the Arduino community. In February 2018, Botletics announced their first Cellular IoT product in the SIM7000 Arduino shield. Since then, this boutique hardware manufacturer has met demand by keeping this shield in stock while simultaneously growing manufacturing capabilities to support large orders.

Botletics SIM7000 LTE-M NB-IoT Arduino Shield Hologram IoT M2M SIM

The Botletics SIM7000 is an Arduino compatible shield providing 4G LTE-M, NB-IoT, and 2G connectivity along with LiPo/Solar support, GPS, and an MCP9808 high-accuracy temperature sensor. At its core, the GPS and cellular support come from a SimCOM7000 module. Botletics SIM7000 comes in 4 different versions for regional compatibility—SIM7000A (America), SIM7000C (Asia), SIM7000E (Europe), and SIM7000G (Global). The board is compatible with all Arduino Uno, Arduino Mega, and Arduino Leonardo boards natively and any 1.8-5V microcontroller if wired externally. Conveniently the SIM7000 can be debugged through its micro USB. Powering the shield is easily done through being paired with an Arduino or on its own through LiPo/Solar support or through the USB port. Timothy Woo, the Founder of Botletics, shared with us where his shield fits in the expanded Arduino ecosystem:

"The Botletics SIM7000 shield was created as an affordable LTE cellular solution for users to upgrade from the widely-used SIMCom 2G and 3G modules painlessly. The shield is built around great documentation and the ubiquitous Arduino platform while also allowing for customization, making it a simple and intuitive way to get started with the latest LTE CAT-M and NB-IoT technologies."

The Botletics firmware is a fork of Adafruit's FONA library, also based upon a SIMCOM modem. Botletics modified the library to include support for the SimCOM7000 line of modules. Furthermore, Botletics officially supports the Hologram SIM and showcases multiple examples of working with the Hologram Dashboard. This library supports both the Botletics boards and the FONA currently.

  • Price $70
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global or Regional
  • Compatibility: LTE-M, NB-IoT, 2G (GSM/GPRS), and 2.5G (EDGE)

The Botletics SIM7000 Shield is available for $70 from Amazon.

SparkFun is on a mission to make the world of electronics more accessible and has opened up a whole subcategory dedicated to cellular IoT products and accessories.  Everything from LTE antennas to their own cellular IoT board is immediately available for purchase through their online store. Sparkfun’s guides, forums, and support are world class to help you get your IoT projects up and running smoothly.The SparkFun LTE CAT M1/NB-IoT Shield is a great way to add wireless, high-bandwidth cellular IoT to a project while keeping power consumption low and can easily incorporated with Arduino-based devices. This shield in particular also comes with a Hologram SIM included. The shield includes a u-blox SARA-R4 modem that can perform a variety of functions via AT commands like SMS and server communication. The SparkFun LTE CAT M1/NB-IoT shield supports U-blox-based GPS modules but does not support other GPS modules or sensors.

  • Price: $85
  • Language: C/C++
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: LTE Cat-M1, NB-IoT
  • The SparkFun LTE Cat-M1/NB-IoT Shield can be purchased for $85 from the SparkFun store.

Mikroelektronika is an engineering company, a manufacturer of development tools and embedded solutions. The company’s aim is to help engineers and companies alike develop and thrive in the embedded world. Based in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, Mikroelektronika offers customers full 360° embedded solutions: everything from advanced prototyping up to end-user devices. With the largest selection of embedded tools and the highest expertise, Mikroelektronika has mastered the embedded communication, offering IoT solutions through their Click Boards™ that feature Bluetooth, RF, WiFi, and cellular connectivity options using various modules with different frequencies, thus allowing users not only to be able to do rapid development but also to utilize their custom engineering sector for the world of IoT. The LTE IoT 2 Click is a Click Board™ built for wireless connectivity, offering LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT functionality to support a variety of M2M and IoT applications. It offers two SMA connectors, the ability to run AT commands via UART, USB connector and more. The LTE IoT 2 Click can support EGPRS at 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, giving it global applications from smart metering to IoT networking to remote monitoring automation.

Hologram Nova

A cellular modem built for IoT development with single board computer compatibility, the Hologram Nova includes access to Hologram developer tools for easy modem and data management. With an open-source design and industrial grade modules, the Nova platform is fully hackable and scalable for integrating cellular connectivity into your product for 2G/3G/LTE-Cat-M1 and beyond.

  • Price: $83
  • Coverage: Global
  • Compatibility: 3G, 2G, LTE Cat-M1 and NB-IoT

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