From in-vivo sensors to the rise of China, Charles Orton-Jones spots ten trends and applications making the internet of things (IoT) arguably the world’s most exciting technology
1. MESH TECHNOLOGY
Devices in close proximity relay messages to each other to form a local network. For example, Cambridge Silicon Radio’s CSRMesh uses the Bluetooth radio signal found on every smartphone. The consumer connects to a Bluetooth-smart IoT device, which then sends that message to affiliated devices in a giant chain or mesh. The advantage is range. Bluetooth can stretch 30 metres, but via a mesh, a message can leapfrog devices to cover much larger distances.
2. INTERNET OF PIGS
Pigs may not be able to fly, but they could tell us a thing or two about body sensors. Swine herds have been fitted with in-vivo sensors to track temperature, drinking water flow, CO2, feed rate, ammonia and pH. The trial is being conducted by General Alert and IoT specialist 1248 to improve animal welfare. Chris Dodge of General Alert reports: “We are already working closely with veterinary, agricultural research and farm management companies, and looking to expand the range of applications.”
3. JAMMING THE JAMS
Using the GPS signals on smartphones, traffic analysis firm Inrix is able to monitor road use. Thus, when drivers request directions they can be directed away from clogged transportation arteries. Delivery firms can use the technology to vary the price of jobs, knowing how long a journey will take and what fuel will be used. The Highways Agency relies on Inrix for traffic management and even where to send snow ploughs after snowfall by measuring average vehicle speeds.
4. KEEPING TRACK
Billed as a “connected car”, the Nissan Leaf is controllable via a smartphone app. If you want to fire up the air conditioning before you get in the car, the app will let you do that. You can turn on the heater, start the engine and, since it is an electric car, program the charging sequence to make use of lower energy tariffs at night. The car sends health reports back to Nissan. BMW’s rival system, Assist, can notify the emergency services when the air bag is deployed, and cut the engine if the car is stolen.
5. THIRST QUENCHER
Europe’s largest brewer Heineken employs sensors embedded in its kegs dispatched to restaurants and pubs. These sensors use the mobile phone network to report on beer and cider levels, as well as temperature and age. When liquid levels fall dangerously low, the landlord can be sent an emergency notification. The system runs on software provider Jasper’s cloud IoT network and gives Heineken a significant competitive advantage over lower-tech beer rivals.
6. MAKING UK #1
Prime Minister David Cameron is an internet of things fan. In January he promised to “personally task” the chief scientific adviser to explore what the government ought to be doing to make the UK a world leader. He threw in £73 million in funding to put boosters under the research. He also launched a £1-million fund for companies looking to develop IoT technologies. Equally significantly, he has asked Ofcom to set out how the licensed and unlicensed radio spectrum will be utilised by IoT-connected devices.
7. SMART RETROFITTING
A major obstacle to making IoT a pervasive global infrastructure is upgrading all the existing non-IoT objects. Dan Matthews, chief technology officer at software firm IFS, points out: “Unlike your smartphone that gets replaced every couple of years, that escalator in the store doesn’t. Nor does the boiler in your house. For IoT to succeed with long-lived products there has to be a massive wave of retrofitting smart stuff on to old equipment. That will take time – a lot of time.”
8. ONE LANGUAGE
A difficulty with the internet of things is the profusion of rival standards, erecting barriers to communication. Cisco Systems, General Electric, IBM, Intel and AT&T recently came together to form the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), devoted to creating interoperable standards. These four firms will hold permanent seats on the IIC’s council, with four other firms invited to join. IIC membership is open to all. The AllSeen Alliance is working to produce open source standards for devices using the Linux computer operating system.
9. CHINA RISING
China rivals the United States, Korea and Japan in the IoT industry. Rob Hyde, director of 360i London, points out that China already accounts for more than a quarter of global machine-to-machine – M2M – communications. The mobile operators’ lobby group GSM Association says this is being driven by collaboration between the Chinese government and the big-three Chinese telecom agencies. “China is in the process of creating connected cities, offering everything from real-time pollution monitoring to trackable public buses,” says Mr Hyde.
10. DANGER SIGNS
What happens when something goes wrong? Wil Rockall, director of information protection risk and compliance at KPMG, says: “The biggest risk is that we are blending into a dependency where we all rely on the same technological monoculture. The impact of a long-term power outage for a major city such as London is already chilling to think about, as we and everything around us becomes more and more connected, the detrimental effects of losing that connectivity become even more apocalyptic.”