The thing about the Internet of Things


Published in Smart World Jan-Feb 2014, The thing about the Internet of Things

Introduction: It is now common knowledge that the world is becoming more connected, instrumented and data driven. In a world of 7 billion people we have almost 10 billion devices connected to the internet. A recent report from Cisco suggests that the number of connected devices will almost touch 50 billion by the year 2020.

This huge increase in the number connected devices will come largely from a couple of new technology trends namely Internet of Things (IoT), Smart grids etc.

What exactly is the Internet of Things?

The first formal definition of the Internet of Things happened when ITU-T the telecom wing of United Nations came with a report titled “The Internet of Things” in 2005. In this report ITU-T added a fourth dimension of ‘anything’ to the existing anyone, anywhere, anytime network. This report visualized a world where millions and millions of devices either passive, intelligent or sensors collected data from the environment and sent it through the network to a backend processing system.

In Mark Weiser’s classic words, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear and weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”. Embedded intelligence in the things themselves will further enhance the power of the network. IoT is just this vision of Mark Weiser.

This fourth dimension of ‘things’ or intelligent sensors give the ability to gather data from the environment which is then sent back through the wireless network to the internet for back end processing. Analysis of the gathered data helps in forecasting events ahead of the time.

The Internet of Things is also known as M2M or machine–to–machine computing, pervasive computing or ubiquitous computing.

The Maha Kumbh Mela experiment: Last year, 2013, coincided with the 12 year cycle of the Maha Kumbh mela festival. More than 100+ million people would have passed through the city of Allahabad for a holy dip in river Sangam at the confluence of Ganges & Yamuna. Almost 95% of this human mass would have carried mobile phones equipped with location sensors.  Harvard Business University with the help of mobile Telecom Operators ran an experiment to track the movement of people through the city of Allahabad to understand the behavior of people. It was  hoped that the study of this large amount of data, as people moved through the city, would help in identifying signatures of disaster and how they can be avoided.

This is possible because mobile phones have the ability to send their location data back to the net for processing. This is an example of the Internet of Things.

Some applications of the Internet of Things is outlined below


RFID or Radio Frequency Identification: RFID was one of the early enablers of this technology; The RFID is a passive device that responds with its identity when it is in the presence of a RFID receiver. The RFID receiver transmits a signal and a RFID tag responds with its unique tag id. The RFID technology has been used extensively by large retail stores like Walmart of US and Tesco of UK etc. These stores RFID tag all their products in the central warehouse. In the presence of an RFID receiver the RFID tags of all the products are read. So the warehouse has a complete list of its inventory. As the products move from the central warehouse to the regional warehouse and finally to the retail store the products are tracked. So the retail stores know exactly how many of each product is present in all its warehouses and stores. As customers buy products and check it out at the counter the count of the products in the store is also updated. So at any point in time each store will know the count of each of its products. So stores like Walmart can now forecast if there is a going o be a shortage of any of it products and can move some of them to the concerned store. In fact we can imagine a scenario where each shopping cart is equipped with a RFID receiver. As we keep putting products into our cart the cart can add each of the items we have taken so that we have the bill ready when we reach the counter. We need not scan the products at the check out counter.

Highway Tolls: An interesting application of IoT, is the payment of highway tools in which the vehicle do not need to stop to pay the toll. Toll is deducted from a device, with a driver, which is RFID tagged. There are also applications in which the tires of cars are embedded with sensors to detect the wear & tear of the tires. Insurance companies can use the driving data from these sensors to give discounts to safe drivers.

Car-to-car networks: Another certainty in the evolution of IoT is car-to-car networks. Vehicular Communication along with the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) achieves safety by enabling communication between vehicles, people and roads. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications are the fundamental building block of autonomous, self-driving cars. It enables the exchange of data between vehicles and allows automobiles to “see” and adapt to driving obstacles more completely, preventing accidents besides resulting in more efficient driving.

Intelligent homes:  Rapid advances in technology will be closer to the home both literally and figuratively. The future home will have the ability to detect the presence of people, pets, smoke and changes to humidity, moisture, lighting, temperature. Smart devices will monitor the environment and take appropriate steps to save energy, improve safety and enhance security of homes.  Devices will start learning your habits and enhance your comfort and convenience. Everything from thermostats, fire detectors, washing machines, refrigerators will be equipped electronics that will be capable of adapting to the environment. ‘Nest’ is a smart thermostat that made headlines recently. The thermostat learns your requirements and adjusts the temperature accordingly. All gadgets in the Smart Home will be accessible through laptops, tablets or smartphones from anywhere. Others gadgets in Intelligent Homes are smart locks, smart lighting etc. Hence, we will be able to monitor all aspects of our intelligent home from anywhere.

Intelligent offices: Smart devices will also make major inroads into offices leading to the birth of intelligent offices where the lighting, heating, cooling will be based on the presence of people in the offices. This will result in an enormous savings in energy. The advances in intelligent homes and intelligent offices will be in the greater context of the Smart Grid.

eHealth: IoT is being used by some hospitals for monitoring of heart patients Here a device is  implanted into the patient. The device regularly sends data to a doctor who can monitor the patient’s pulse rate, heart rate, blood pressure etc.  It can warn the physician when it detects an irregularity in the patient’s heart rhythm who can then call the patient and advice on appropriate medication to take avoiding a real cardiac arrest.

Smart Cities: How often we sit fretting and fuming in a traffic jam contributing to air pollution. Smart Cities are equipped with multiple devices that identify and measure traffic speed and volume on city roads. At the back end the systems analyze this continuous stream of real time and provide alternative routes based on predictive analytics based on real time and historical data. Studies have also shown that it is possible to control traffic by offering discounts to drivers on less crowded roads.

Smart Grid: The grid or the legacy electrical network has three components to it namely energy generation, energy transmission and energy distribution. The conventional electrical grid which is prevalent in most countries throughout the world has extremely high transmission losses besides having other issues. Typically an outage in one part of the network would cause a cascading effect throughout the network. Remember the infamous blackout in US in 2003 which was the largest black in US in history. More closer to home, in India, we had a blackout in Dec 2012 which was the largest black out ever. This is because of the domino effect where an issue causes a cascading effect. Closer to home we had the world’s biggest blackout in Jul 31 which left 600 million powerless for close to 2 days.

With the advent of Smart Grid the legacy electrical grid will have millions of electrical sensors which monitor the flow of energy. If there is a fault in any part of the network the sensors ensure that the failure is isolated so that outage does not spread to other parts.

Besides instead of the regular electrical meters Smart Grids include the concept of the Smart home equipped with smart meters. These smart meters have a two way communication. The price of energy which we get from the grid varies like the stock price. With the smart meters and smart appliances these appliances turn on when the price of drawing energy is low.

Wearable Technologies: he latest entrants to IoT are the wearable technology like Smart watches, Google Glass, Health bands. These technologies constantly monitor measure and send the data for processing to the backend.  For e.g. Google’s glass can immediately recognize prominent landmarks and display it. Similarly health bands like Fitbit, Nike FuelBand etc can now measure steps, heart rate and provide feedback.

Challenges: There are still many challenges on the way to a future filled with M2M. There is still no universally accepted protocol. There are many competing protocols like WiFi, Zigbee, MQPP, XMPP etc and there is yet to be a single common standard between devices and the networks for the Internet Of Things.

In any case, the Internet of Things or M2M is happening technology and will soon come into our neighborhood and we should all be pretty swamped by this tidal wave in our future

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