IoT set to solve many societal and industrial challenges

6 min read

The phrase 'Internet of Things' arrived with little fanfare a couple of years ago. Since then, it's turned into the 'buzzword' of the age; there's few things you read which don't refer to it.

To some extent, it's a reworking of M2M – or machine to machine communications – a concept that's at least a decade old. But where M2M was pretty much about linking machines with some form of central system using a variant of GSM communications, the Internet of Things (IoT) is about everything being able to talk to anything via the web. On that basis, it's no surprise the numbers which are being bandied about are huge. Talking to New Electronics in 2010, John Cunliffe, Ericsson's chief technology office for Western and Central Europe, predicted there would be 50billion devices capable of accessing the internet by the end of this decade. "Anything that can be connected will be," he said. "The applications will be anything – ranging from domestic to industrial – and managing these devices will be easier if they are on the web." Morgan Stanley Research is even more bullish, predicting 75bn devices will be linked by 2020. So what is the Internet of Things and is it any different from M2M? Matthew Bailey, vp of marketing for Cambridge based Argon Design and co-chair of the Weightless Marketing SIG, said: "The Internet of Things is all about a sensor communicating over a distance with an application in the cloud which can extract value from the data. But there is no difference between the IoT and M2M; they're exactly the same. In fact, the term M2M is misleading; it's more like the internet of sensing, but there is a lot of confusion." Yet Bailey's view isn't shared exactly by Varun Nagaraj, senior vice president, product management and marketing, with Echelon, originally an industrial networking specialist, but now focused more on energy saving in industry. Nagaraj sees a distinct difference and believes there should also be reference to an industrial IoT (IIoT). "When you look at the IIoT, you see an environment with different characteristics than the consumer IoT. For example, within IIoT, there's a large element of 'set and forget'. Consumer IoT, on the other hand, is about humans at one level or another; it's about people interacting with things around them and has to be seen as a consumer experience. The IIoT is more prosaic; it's about getting stuff done with as little human involvement as possible." Bailey is certainly interested in the consumer side of IoT and sees great potential when the approach is applied to some of the 'big challenges' which societies around the world face. "The rise of 'mega cities' is one," he said, "with vast populations in a small space. There will be the need to manage transport, energy, water and similar services in these cities. And there will be increased pressure on institutions like the NHS in dealing with acute and long term health care. This is already pushing these organisations to look towards keeping people in their homes and monitoring them remotely." Bailey also sees great potential for the IoT when it comes to increasing agricultural efficiency and the availability of drinking water. "Things need to be done at a distance and more effectively," he asserted. "Take food as an example. Mainstream crops in the US are grown in the middle of the country, but that's increasingly becoming affected by drought. Last year, US insurance companies wrote off $12billion worth of crops because of drought. How do we protect these food supplies? How can we water these crops? Having sensors that allow you to perform drip irrigation more effectively is one way." He also believes sensors can help with such issues as effective use of fertiliser and weed suppression. It's when you start discussing applications such as these that the predicted deployment of 50bn connected devices starts to be believable. Will it reach 50bn by 2020? "Different research organisations say there could be vast numbers of sensors networked," Bailey noted. "It's possible we could get to 50bn." But while many agree there will be these vast sensor networks, nobody has a particularly strong opinion about when they might appear. Having sensors is one thing; linking them together, if necessary, and to the cloud is another. "We need cheap and effective technology that builds strong business cases," Bailey suggested. "Existing technology will not deliver that and without new technology, you won't have sensor networks anywhere." The route to widespread sensor networks, says Bailey, is Weightless. When the M2M concept first arrived around the turn of the Millennium, it relied on the GSM network. "But the mobile phone network is design for voice," Bailey pointed out. "It's just not cost effective for vast amounts of sensors. There is no proper M2M radio technology – and that's where Weightless comes in." Weightless is looking to exploit white space – the frequencies made available by the departure of analogue tv transmissions. These low frequencies – in the UK, there is significant interest in the range from 470 to 800MHz – lend themselves to long distance transmission, as well as indoor applications. "And the old analogue tv channels were similar around the world," Bailey added. However, white space doesn't work everywhere. "It's challenging in some locations," he admitted. "For example, tv whitespace doesn't work in New York City, so we are reverting to sub 1GHz ISM, which works perfectly." A further benefit is that access to the spectrum is free, so if low cost sensors and enabling technology can be developed, the approach could well see rapid take up and that notional 50bn device figure attained. "The US is already 'open for business'," Bailey pointed out. "It has tested the database of frequencies and if you want to build a whitespace based solution there, you can already get on with it." The situation in the UK is less well defined. Ofcom is running trials to 'understand the value which can be extracted'. In one trial, sensors have been fitted along a stretch of the A14 between Felixstowe and Cambridge. Initially, they will be used for traffic management; speed and location information will be sent from vehicles equipped with the relevant technology, while congestion information will flow the other way. In the longer term, it's possible the system could be used to levy tolls or enforce speed limits by overriding the driver. Bailey sees greater potential in private networks, in which companies build Weightless solutions to solve their particular problems. However, it's early days for Weightless. "Once people can see the value that can be built on Weightless networks," Bailey said, "semiconductor manufacturers will start to move into the market because they will see the opportunities." Already, ARM has shown interest in this market, with chief technology officer Mike Muller discussing very low clock frequency processors. Echelon's Nagaraj sees a significant difference between 'consumer' and 'industrial' IoT. He believes IIoT will have a larger economic impact, but sees problems. "In the consumer world, we're used to mobile phone calls dropping and we're there to take corrective action when that happens. But when you combine high economic impact and low human interaction, the requirements will be higher. Not only that, the conditions that will surround the IIoT will be harsher; it's a noisy environment." He has the same view of the 'consumer' IoT as does Bailey – it's about pieces of data being transmitted to the cloud. But he believes the IIoT will be about communities," he contended. "Devices will be part of a community, but they may well be autonomous and will continue to work whether they're connected to the internet or not. They'll be aware of each other." Another important element of IIoT will be safety and security. "This peer to peer community is unique to the IIoT," he continued, "and that's something that applies less to the consumer IoT. If someone can 'hack' into a wristband and 'fiddle' with it, that's one thing; someone getting access to a programmable logic controller in a factory is another. A different level of security will be needed." Connectivity will also be different. "Consumer IoT is essentially wireless," said Nagaraj, "but the IIoT will have to deal with an installed base. Millions of devices could potentially become part of this network, but many of them were installed before IP became popular and 98% of all industrial objects are already linked by wires because that provides the reliable communications needed." One of the key issues which needs to be addressed is that of legacy. "The consumer world doesn't have to deal with legacy," he pointed out. "In industry, there are huge numbers of equipments using legacy – and often specialised – protocols, including Lonworks, DeviceNet, Profibus and CAN. We can't wish them away; they need to be connected into this new world through gateways." Nagaraj is confident the IIoT will develop rapidly, pointing to a study by Piper Jaffray that predicts 23bn connected devices by 2020. "The IoT will be 39% of this and industrial applications will involve around 1bn devices. The IIoT will be materially and economically significant. End volumes won't be as high as consumer IoT, but they will still be high." Because the IoT and the IIoT will be 'different animals', they will need different technologies. "You will not be able to take consumer technologies and use them," he asserted. "That would be a shortsighted approach." Looking to meet this nascent demand, Echelon is rolling out a range of software, chips and modules over the next 18 months that will enable existing equipment to be integrated into the IIoT. It will also support Raspberry Pi. "It's the most popular Maker platform," he said, referring to the burgeoning community of 'hobbyists' developing technology based solutions, "so it makes sense to release software for the Pi, along with sample code and working demos." Amongst the products will be software that enables a device in the network to be designated as a server and modules that enable wired or wireless links between the various equipments. Nagaraj pointed out there will be an autodiscovery function in the software that allows machines to decide how the network is partitioned and operates. Bailey and Nagaraj see new opportunities from the IoT; whether it's the consumer or industrial version. Bailey contends the IoT isn't about 'killer apps'; rather, that it's about opportunity. "It's about empowering everyone – from individuals to corporations to governments – to solve the challenges about which they are passionate." While the consumer IoT will be larger, Nagaraj believes the IIoT will have far greater economic importance. "It's all to do with GDP," he concluded. "By focusing on the IIoT, the improvements will be greater."