As we live in a highly connected world, it’s likely that you’ve heard the words IOT or “The Internet of Things”. But what it is, exactly, is not entirely clear to a lot of people as it’s a highly technical concept. Nor are the changes it’s going to bring about or how they will affect people on the proverbial street.
That’s what this article aims to address: What is IOT "the Internet of Things", how is it currently being used, how could it change the world, and what are the dangers, if any.
Some basic concepts
A good starting place would be to establish a few basic concepts about our world today that have led us to this point: Technology is king, and humanity has wired the planet with all kinds of connectivity. Broadband internet is widely available, basic connectivity is becoming more and more affordable, and millions of devices are being connected to the internet every day – analysts say we could see over 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020.
Those devices are not only becoming smarter, but advanced sensors and WiFi capabilities are being built into all kinds of new and old devices, allowing them to connect to the wider internet, and to even talk to one another.
Smartphone penetration is on the rise, too, the costs of creating technological solutions are dropping, sensors are cheap to manufacture yet are incredibly sensitive to a wide range of inputs, and everyone and his dog is looking for the Next Big Thing to take humanity the next step forward in its development.
This combination of access to technology, lower-than-ever costs of developing and deploying technological solutions, ubiquitous connectivity, smarter sensors, and a thirst for innovation, means the time is ripe for new ideas to come out and take hold. And the one that’s leading the pack right now is the Internet of Things.
So what is the IoT, exactly?
The basic idea of the Internet of Things is to connect any and every electronic device to the internet, embed sensors and some sort of intelligence in them, and/or allow them to talk to one another. If your mind is filling with images of everything from light switches to coffee makers to household appliances to headphones to smartwatches to pacemakers, you’d be 100% right.
Almost more importantly, the IoT concept sees this kind of intelligence and connectivity being built into machine components – the parts that make up an engine, for example, or the parts of an industrial press – in order to relay data to a central hub of sorts.
That hub can then interpret that data to establish things like the actual percentage of wear and tear on a component, the likelihood of a breakdown or failure, or any of a huge number of other useful data that can be used to improve performance, troubleshoot problems and more in a wide range of machinery. The hub can be anything from a CPU built into the device, to a cloud-based intelligence that processes the data and relays the results to the device over the internet.
In essence, then, the IoT is a massive, interconnected network of all kinds of devices, from the traditional to the emerging. “Things”, in other words.
So that’s the underlying concept; the question on your mind at this point could be something like “Okay, so what? Why do we need this?”. The answer lies at the heart of the IoT and is the reason techies tend to get excited about it: With everyday objects talking to one another, we will be able to do so much more with technology than we already do today.
Consider something as simple and everyday as lights: Ten years ago you simply plugged a light bulb into a socket and manually turned it on and off; today, if you kit your home out with a decent home automation system – the “brain” that can co-ordinate the intelligence built into other devices in the home - you can tell your lights when to turn on, how bright to be and what colour to use, and when to turn off with an app on your smartphone because everything is connected. And that’s possible today, but it’s also just the tip of the iceberg.
Areas of interest to IoT solution developers are pretty much everything society currently does. Healthcare, for example, already has plenty of IoT-based solutions in place. Wearable devices that monitor our health and physical activities are widespread, even here in South Africa (think FitBit, the Apple Watch, Samsung’s Gear Sport, Garmin’s Forerunner etc.), and there are even solutions that dispense and monitor the intake of medicines that are especially helpful for helping the elderly take care of themselves.
The retail sector is one sector that’s arguably more enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by the Internet of Things than others, because there are just so many practical applications for it that can make the shopping experience that much simpler, faster, and better for shoppers, and the back-end system more efficient for retailers themselves by streamlining and refining their supply chains and warehouse management systems.
In the US, big retailers have adopted some of the earliest IoT solutions in a big way, and they are using IoT devices like RFID inventory-tracking chips, infrared foot-traffic counters, tracking systems that use cellular networks and WiFi, digital signage and kiosks, and even their customers’ mobile devices to their advantage.
One example of the more impressive retail solutions you might not necessarily associate with the Internet of Things is Amazon’s Dash buttons which re-order a customer’s favourite product at – literally – the touch of a button. Once the WiFi-connected button is pressed, Amazon’s largely-automated and IoT-driven picking and delivery system then kicks into action, and hours later, the customer has their product.
Ultimately, the efficiencies and improved shopping experiences facilitated by IoT all means more money for retailers, and retailers like money. Hence their enthusiasm.
But they shouldn’t be alone in this – IoT can offer similar benefits for just about every industry you can imagine when the appropriate IoT solutions are developed and implemented.
The automotive industry is already embedding hundreds of sensors into every car manufacturers produce, in order to monitor everything from temperature to air pressure to wear and tear to the general condition of the engine. These sensors take thousands of readings every minute, which are fed back into the car’s computer and interpreted for the user’s benefit. They can tell owners exactly when to change the oil, when to get a service (and what parts need attention), and more.
The presence of a computer also enables things like being able to open the car remotely when a command is received from a secure app, rolling down windows, activating the alarm, and other functions. Cars are becoming so advanced, they can even be remotely controlled in this way.
An unlikely-sounding industry to get benefits from IoT technology is farming. But for years already, it’s been possible for farmers to monitor the quality of their soil with sensors that report to an app that provides them with all kinds of useful information, and even automate some activities to make farming easier.
Farmers can tell exactly what additives their fields need, which parts of their fields are actually under-nourished compared to the rest, get timely information like when the best times to plant and harvest are, and monitor temperatures and humidity.
Irrigation systems are particularly ripe for automation, and several IoT-based irrigation solutions have already been made available; a quick Google search will show just how popular they are.
While farmers have developed their own systems over the years, largely based on a mix of experience, knowledge, and intuition, the IoT can provide a more solid foundation for them to operate from, leading to greater productivity and overall efficiency.
IoT will also be heavily involved with the “smart cities” of the future. By installing thousands of sensors, lights, and meters all over a city and connecting them wirelessly to a network, city administrators can collect and analyse all kinds of data that will allow them to improve the city’s underlying infrastructure, its public utilities and services, and everything else administrators are responsible for.
As it’s even possible to embed sensors into tar and concrete, it is theoretically possible that some day, a municipality could respond to things like developing potholes or poor conditions in a specific spot on a specific road without a citizen having to tell them, because the tar itself alerted them.
Traffic lights going out and the city doing nothing about them because they weren’t aware of the outage could likewise be a thing of the past thanks to the Internet of Things, as those lights will, in the future, be a lot smarter than they are now. They might even be able to self-repair when a problem occurs.
The beauty of the IoT as applied to smart cities is that it really allows us to do more than just dream – it puts practical, useful solutions to many of the headaches of city living within relatively easy reach.
A realistic future scenario
In the future, when other “things” are connected and operated with some sort of intelligence, the possibilities become truly endless.
As a consumer, your day could go something like this:
Your alarm clock wakes you up at 6am, and on sensing that you’re stirring from your bed, immediately tells your IoT coffee maker to start brewing. It could make the coffee stronger or weaker depending on how well you slept, which it can tell from the smart device you wore in bed which analysed your movements during the night.
While you brush your teeth, intelligence built into the mirror could bring up your calendar for the day, alerting you to your nearest appointments. It could also show the morning news by tapping into an online stream or displaying headlines from your favourite news sources.
Your connected car could analyse traffic and select the best route to your destination. Should the best route still not be good enough to reach your destination on time, the car itself could alert your meeting partner(s) that you’ll be late, and by how long.
The canteen could pre-emptively prepare your favourite lunch based on your past purchase history, and you could pay for it with a contactless payment system.
Biometric doors at your workplace that have your profile on record could open for you automatically after scanning to make sure you’re you.
On the way home, you could walk into a shop, pick up what you want, and walk out without going through a queue or tillpoint because the store has sensors that scan your chosen products and automatically debit your bank account when you walk out.
Before you get home, your house lights come on automatically, the TV is turned on and tuned into to your favourite channel, and the smart fridge has ordered the items you forgot to replace yesterday, and they are waiting for you at your front door.
Is there a “but”? Sadly, yes.
Sounds good, right? These scenarios and many more that we can’t even imagine yet are what the internet of things will enable us to do, but of course, it comes with its own dangers.
Security is #1 through #100. IoT solutions will come with their own security features, but they need to be activated and deployed properly in order to keep hackers from co-opting them. Making sure this happens must be any IoT solution provider’s #1 priority.
By most accounts right now providers are doing a good job of it, so it’s just a matter of time before the IoT has an even more dramatic impact on lives across the globe.
First Distribution provides the building blocks, enablement, implementation and support for cutting-edge IoT solutions by offering access to IoT platforms from some of the world’s largest vendors, including Amazon, Microsoft’s Azure stack, Oracle, and more. Talk to us about IoT; we can help get your ambitions off the ground.