What on earth is the Internet of Things?

I am often asked “What’s the next big thing in the IT industry?” Recently, my answer has been “The Internet of Things (IoT)” The response is usually the same “What on earth is that?”

Well, the short answer is that it’s a coined term that refers to any uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations in an Internet-like structure. So, pretty much anything! For example:

  • a person with a heart monitor implant
  • a farm animal with a biochip transponder
  • a vehicle that has built-in sensors to warn when tyre pressure is low

…or any other natural or man-made object that can be assigned an IP address and provided with the ability to transfer data over a network.

So far, the Internet of Things has been most closely associated with machine-to-machine (M2M) communication in manufacturing, power, and oil & gas utilities. Products built with M2M communication capabilities are often referred to as being ‘smart’, e.g. smart label, smart meter, and smart grid sensor. However, it’s growing incredibly fast. In fact, according to Gartner there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the Internet of Things by 2020 and ABI Research say more than 30 billion devices will be wirelessly connected to the Internet of Things by 2020. So we need to plan for this influx of sensory data.

I say it’s the next big thing, but really it’s already here. Let’s look at a couple real world examples:

The Virtual Power station

Let me try to set the scene for you. Imagine a small town in America with several thousand houses all fitted with bi-directional smart monitors. These monitors report back power usage in real time and open up their control systems to be adjusted within pre-defined tolerances externally. This town has power provided by one physical oil powered power station. The virtual power station is comprised of a number of servers in a data centre with network access to the houses, physical power station and the Internet.

The virtual power station receives power demand telemetry from the smart meters, Power generating capacity from the oil powered power station. This is augmented with other decision information such as: weather forecasts, social & sporting events, futures markets (oil price), etc.

The virtual power station then orchestrates automatically the power delivery and manages the whole power ecosystem. It uses predictive analytics to plan in advance peaks in demand. For example, a hot sunny day when use of air-conditioners will peak, or when a popular sports match is scheduled you would expect a peak in TV power consumption for the duration. The bi-direction control system allows the virtual power station to make minor adjustments to power consuming devices in the home i.e. turn down the heat by 1 degree on 10% of houses or maybe switch off 20% of swimming pool filter pumps for a short time. These small changes go un-noticed by the consumer but have a large impact on the overall power demand.

So in short the whole town becomes a large sensor area network providing telemetry to a decision making engine which then automatically manages energy production, adjusts power demand and buys oil for itself in advance at a good price on the open market.

Remote Heart pacemaker monitor

Another really good example is based in Canada. Let me set the scene before the IoT solution.
A large number of patients fitted with pacemakers live in largely inaccessible parts of Canada. These patients need to be visited by a doctor at least once a year to check that the pacemaker is performing correctly. This involves a doctor typically flying in on a small plane, taking up lots of valuable time and money only to find that the patient was perfectly fine. The net result is a large transport cost and the doctors being only 10% efficient.

So what do they do now? The IoT solution was to send all the patients a device that they place next to their bed. This device monitors their pace-maker while they sleep and sends this telemetry back to data analytics engines in the cloud. The results of the analytics are send to the doctors allowing them to only schedule a trip to the patients that seem to have unusual readings. The net result is the cost have come down dramatically and the doctors are about 90% efficient.

So what’s going to drive the IoT forward?

In my opinion it will be the growth and proliferation of sensory area networks and machine to machine (M2M) networks along with emerging technologies such as Low Power Wide Area Networks (LPWAN)”. Think of LPWANs as large footprint (30-50 miles) low bandwidth wi-fi zones. These LPWAN areas are the ideal transport medium for any number of IoT sensors deployed across large areas.

What are typical Sensor area networks?

Well just for starters how about these:

  • Home Area network – applications such as power metering, interactive control, home CCTV & monitoring, smart fridges
  • Personal Area Network – wearable technology such as calorie monitors, pedometers, blood pressure monitors, Google Glass
  • Vehicle Area Network – real-time engine monitoring, satellite navigation, emergency response detection, tyre pressure monitoring
  • SCADA control systems in oil & gas refineries and water treatment plants

All of these new sensor area networks are going to produce massive amounts of data that will need to be captured collated, stored and analysed. This will involve end users and service providers alike seeking to provide extra value and services based on this data. We are going to see a large increase in “Big Data” and analysis services, hosting and storage, IoT management solutions, IoT sensor deployment and IoT cloud services.
This is the future and a massive opportunity for everyone.