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Joining 50billion dots: The evolution of the Internet of Things

The Technology Strategy Board recently announced that it is investing up to £4million in a competition that will stimulate the development of an open application and services ecosystem for the Internet of Things. Indeed, with Ericsson predicting there will be 50billion connected devices by the end of the decade, M2M communications technology will certainly have to overcome the challenges regarding scalability and support for new applications.

"Its' a massively fragmented market," said Emmanuel Walckenaer, senior vp and general manager of Sierra Wireless' solutions and service business unit. Unlike the consumer mobile market, there is not one single application; rather, he says, more than 300 verticals. "Here, every single project, every single customer, has a unique need."

Walckenaer noted how M2M applications are generally considered to be difficult to build and are proving even harder to manage as the number of connected devices increases. Ideally, applications need to be built in weeks, rather than years. He said that while there are some comprehensive offers on the module/gateway side and that standards and initiatives are progressing, removing complexity will be the tipping point for the technology to become mainstream.

"We believe this market will take off if we bring enough simplicity," said Walckenaer. "This market will take off if we can bring some type of disruption in the way people can build M2M solutions." Sierra Wireless has recently launched a cloud based platform designed to solve such M2M challenges of complexity, time to market, scalability and security. "The whole objective is to bring agility and simplicity," he added.

Jürgen Hase, head of Deutsche Telekom's M2M Competence Centre believes there are two main drivers for M2M. "On the one hand, we need to focus on enhancing and simplifying processes. The second is to offer new services and applications."As technology becomes cheaper, it is easier to implement these solutions.

International marketplace
Earlier this year, Deutsche Telekom created an online international M2M marketplace to not only make it easier for vendors to reach beyond their regular sales channels, but allow to allow customers to compare M2M products.

Hase observed that. previously, customers seeking an M2M solution would have to contact many different companies – for modules, production and connectivity. "That's the reason it makes sense to create one clear marketplace, where you can find a range of M2M products and companies in one place.

"The M2M Marketplace is unique – nobody else offers anything like this. Users have the opportunity to discover new and exciting solutions that were simply not on their radar."

One example of this could be what Hase refers to as 'the connected cow'. In this rather unusual application, M2M technology is being used to measure the temperature of a cow and alert the farmer via SMS about the beast's health. Although at first it may seem like a joke, Hase points out this is actually an excellent example of M2M industrial automation. To the farmer, the cow is essentially a machine that can be monitored, so it makes perfect sense to take measurements.

Outside of the farm, which sectors are really leading the charge in M2M communications technology? Walckenaer draws attention to fleet management and optimising logistics, as well as the connected car. "This is not only through 2G communications, but also through 3G or 4G, bringing broadband connectivity to cars," he said. "You've got a variety of applications there."

Hase agrees. "With a long term view, the M2M sector is really driven by small and medium enterprises (SMEs) because they can embed M2M and use it quickly and easily." An example could be a small solar panel company using M2M to monitor solar panels remotely. "However," he adds, "The next major sector to adopt M2M will be automotive." Rather than continue tweaking statistics such as performance, this industry will now be adding entirely new telemetric services.

Of course, the market requirements differ in terms of application. Some applications, such as smart metering, only generate a little information per day and so will not require much bandwidth.

"If you look at some applications data flow is very limited," said Walckenaer. "So if you're monitoring a machine, you may just need a few kilobytes per month – with embedded technology, you just extract the information you need and 2G would be just perfect for these applications."

On the other side of the spectrum there are video and CCTV applications. Walckenaer's example is video from police cars being monitored at a central location. "Typically, for this type of application, 4G technology will be the best," he said. "High broadband, super high quality." For Walckenaer, the key is to understand the needs of the customer and to offer the right technology to deploy the solution.

There are advantages and disadvantages to all mobile technologies. "The benefits of 2G and GPRS technologies is that they are very cost effective," said Walckenaer. 4G on the other hand, opens up a high quality broadband channel with the device. "It's a bit more expensive and the coverage and deployment of networks is not yet complete," he said. "But for video, mission critical and always on applications, this type of connectivity will be superb."

Hase is succinct: "In the long term, mobile technology will be based on 3G/4G." he said. "Most M2M applications run on less than 5Mbyte /month, so you don't need high bandwidth. The most important thing is it has to work."

Evolving in two ways
The technology is evolving in two ways. "It's getting more efficient every day," said Walckenaer. "Modules are getting smaller and smaller; you can embed them in virtually any object now. In the same way, bandwidth is getting larger. So the number of potential applications is increasing rapidly. You can almost do whatever you want."

According to Walckenaer, connectivity has improved by a factor of 50 in the past five years and this will continue. "Now, the problem is how to collect, classify and store all the information coming from these machines and how to make this available to the application," he noted. It's critical for solutions and service providers to get this information into their back end system and actually do something with it.

This leads to the business implications surrounding security and trust. "Security is getting more and more important. You cannot afford to have unsecure applications," said Walckenaer. When you have connectivity in cars, it's vital that it isn't breached. Likewise, you wouldn't want your smart meter or your livestock hacked either.

Security and confidentially of the data is another issue entirely. Hase added that securing the data is vital. "It's absolutely necessary to be a trusted partner," he said.

Both Hase and Walckenaer see the market growing – whether it's coffee machines, cars or cows. Platforms from both companies are helping address the challenges of M2M and ensuring it becomes safe, simple to use and scalable.

Hase believes communications technology will soon make the internet of things a reality. "We will use M2M without knowing that we are using M2M," he concluded. "It will appear in our daily lives more regularly."

Author
Simon Fogg

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