What will the Internet of Things do for me?
The Internet of Things past, present and future
I have attended a number of events over the past 18 months that featured some very interesting speakers including Vint Cerf, Chief Futurist of Google. Many subjects were explored from Smart Cities to communication with space craft travelling to the outer reaches of our solar system and beyond. One common thread across all of the topics was the Internet of Things (IoT). As with any technology, there are pundits saying it will be the best thing since sliced bread and others saying it just won’t happen. If the key players in the development of the Internet of Things components can overcome the technical and political challenges, and reach agreement on protocols, it will succeed and it will change our lives.
This is such a fascinating subject for me as it ties in much of the technology I have been working on over the past 30 years. Through a healthy mix of my love of the industry I work in and genuine interest in my customer’s requirements when other organisations shied away combined with a smattering of good fortune I have been involved in so many interesting projects that I consider forerunners of Machine to Machine (M2M) and the Internet of Things.
”…I believe it devalues the technology and detracts from the real and potential benefits the Internet of Things can bring to us all.”
In simple terms the Internet of Things is a collection of devices or machines talking to each other to automate many of the tasks that you either have to do manually or may not do at all. There are many applications, some of these will be discussed in this blog but to set the scene ‘things’ could be personal health monitors to ketchup bottles and a whole gamut of devices in between. The most common example I hear when people in our industry refer to the Internet of Things is the smart domestic fridge that automatically orders more milk (or beer) when it detects low stock. This may be a fun simplistic example but I believe it devalues the technology and detracts from the real and potential benefits the Internet of Things can bring to us all.
What the Internet of Things aims to achieve is not a new idea. I distinctly remember a speaker at the BICSI Conference in Brighton back in July 2001 talking about a future of SMS controlled home automation including domestic appliance control. He gave an example of texting a pizza recipe to his kitchen controller and that would check with the fridge and larder to see if the ingredients were there and if not it would place an order with the local grocer. It would also send the cooking instruction to the bread maker for the time and heat settings for the base. At the time it sounded too far-fetched but 14 years on and this hypothetical example is much closer to reality. Maybe the ‘smart domestic fridge’ example originated in Brighton all those years ago?
Going back even further to the mid-eighties when the Astro founders were building Frequency Division Multiplexer based emergency communications and telemetry systems for the oil industry. These systems carried human to human voice communication as well as telemetry (with some elements of machine to machine) to monitor pipeline status and control the oil and gas flow. Our part in this was to provide reliable, high availability communications channels over the available inter-platform and platform to beach communications links. These links were typically point-to-point microwave where line-of-sight was available and tropospheric scatter for longer links. The oil and gas pipeline network and the safety of all platform personnel depended on the machine-to-machine element of this early communications network.
”…it would also be a very accurate biometric verification that the patient is who the doctors believe them to be.”
Around 10 years ago I was involved with a multi-disciplinary team putting forward a bid for development of a Telecare product. Some of the medical experts on the team were discussing their vision of the not so distant future, including detailed monitoring of patients while in hospital and at home. At the time the medical specialists in the team were considering a heart monitor on a small sticking plaster that attached to the patient’s chest. Not only would it monitor their heart beat for health reasons it would also be a very accurate biometric verification that the patient is who the doctors believe them to be. This can be a very serious issue when a patient is unconscious or has lost the ability to communicate. This problem was brought home to me recently through personal experiences in hospital. There is little margin for error in these circumstances but I will be sharing my thoughts on this subject in more detail in a later blog.
Some may consider the Internet of Things a misnomer in that many of the ‘things’ may not actually be connected to the Internet but in the generic sense, however, these ‘things’ are inter-connected so it is an ‘internet’ even if it is not ‘the Internet’. There are so many ‘things’ to connect including domestic appliances, business machines, monitors, vehicles, people, animals, the list is endless so it is predicted that the Internet of Things will surpass the Internet in terms of numbers of connected devices.
”If the Internet of Things is really going to help us all in our everyday lives we are going to become dependent on it very quickly.”
The benefits of having an Internet of Things are far reaching to the point of being life changing and even life-saving. Even if just the patient monitoring capability mentioned above was realised the benefits would be far reaching. The ‘thing’ doesn’t have to be human it can be anything with a life cycle or function that would benefit from tracking, monitoring, reporting and automatic or manual remote control. In addition to the life changing or life-saving benefits there is a massive opportunity to take the information gathered from ‘things’ and refine the process or product to improve the customer experience or achieve significant cost savings.
If the Internet of Things is really going to help us all in our everyday lives we are going to become dependent on it very quickly. In which case, whatever the service is, it must be reliable. The sheer scale and diversity of the things to be connected presents us with some serious challenges that must be overcome first. These challenges are far reaching and include among others: connectivity, data processing, power, compatibility, security and data protection.
The connectivity issues are on a different scale to anything we are currently used to. The Internet of Things by its nature will be made up of many disparate things ranging in size from miniature devices worn on your person and items on shop or warehouse shelves to large machinery and vehicles. These things could be anywhere and if they are going to provide an effective service they need to be able to send their data such as location or status information to a central location for processing from cradle to grave.
”…the application may also send you GPS guidance to the nearest drop in surgery”
Using a simple health monitoring device as an example. If you have a health condition that needs constant monitoring you could be supplied with a health monitor as a wearable device or an implant. The health monitor ‘thing’ first needs to communicate with your smartphone. Your mobile phone can then pass any data collected by the device back to a secure central web based service for processing. The analysis could compare to predetermined parameters based on your own health benchmark. If your condition falls outside of these predetermined parameters the application will feedback information or instructions to you via your smartphone to enable you to take appropriate action. Furthermore, depending on the action required the application may also send you GPS guidance to the nearest drop in surgery or casualty department while notifying the medical team that you will be arriving soon with a detailed report on your condition.
As the term Internet of Things implies there will be many devices or things needing to communicate back to a data centre or cloud service. As with our health monitoring example above the connectivity for the Internet of Things is likely to be hierarchical. The initial connectivity from the thing could be a very short range wireless connection, maybe with a range of tens of centimetres to a data collecting device. This access level of communication could use existing technologies such as Bluetooth, ZigBee or RFID but newer technologies will emerge better suited to the scale of the requirements. The data collecting device in our example above was a smartphone but products are emerging for specific applications. The data collection device may use short range wireless to communicate with the ‘thing’ and may use a longer range wireless technology or physical cabling for network access towards the data centre or cloud application.
The connectivity at this level will typically be short range and relatively low speed but as the data gets closer to the data centre the scale of the data collection and processing will be a real ‘big data’ challenge. There has been some discussions around processing the data at local collection points and passing smaller amounts of processed data back to the centre. A local processing solution would go some way to solving the big data issue and reduce communications bandwidth demand but it is not without its shortfalls. One of the major benefits of having an Internet of Things is to gain an understanding of the bigger picture. If there is an element of autonomous processing and decision making at the edge of the network some of this picture is likely to be misinterpreted and an element of control could be lost in the process. In addition to this, having more intelligence at the collection points may add to the cost of support and reduce reliability.
”…researchers have made a significant breakthrough by developing a tiny wireless device that can harvest power from the radio signals received on its antenna.”
With all of these things needing to remain in constant communication power is also issue. If the thing is powered – such as a domestic appliance or a vehicle – the sensors could be powered locally when the appliance is powered up or the vehicle running. They could also have the ability to retain sufficient power to survive a power failure in the host device. Alternatively, for devices or appliances that are always on the move the sensor could have a kinetic charging capability with sufficient stored power to survive long periods of no movement that could be in years. But what about large quantities of small products that may be sat on a store or warehouse shelf for several years? Battery size and cost would preclude the use of traditional device location tracking sensors. A recent development announced by Sandford University in the US could make a significant impact on the Internet of Things. Their researchers have made a significant breakthrough by developing a tiny wireless device – the size of an ant – that can harvest power from the radio signals received on its antenna. These devices can be manufactured for a very low cost – potentially pennies rather than pounds.
As if the connectivity and power issues are not enough to worry ourselves with we must also consider the security implications of a network on a whole new scale with no physical or geographic boundaries. There are going to be so many devices to protect throughout their life cycle and journey from supply to ongoing use or consumption. When we carry out our security assessments we have so many new factors to take into consideration. If these things are going to make our lives easier when operating normally they could undoubtedly make our lives hell if they are compromised. This is a network security challenge on a whole new scale, perhaps close to the scale of monitoring utility installations such as power stations, water treatment centres and oil and gas production facilities – in terms of the number of sensors and the processing requirements if not the critical nature.
The strength of the security measures required will obviously depend on the nature of the data and the actions to be taken once the data is processed. Domestic fridge sensors responsible for keeping your beer stock replenished will not need the same level of security as manufacturing process monitoring and control system with the autonomy to shut down production if the collected information from the sensors report parameters reaching a critical level.
”Much of the early M2M and IoT estate has not taken security seriously.”
Much of the early M2M and IoT estate has not taken security seriously. Some manufacturers have repurposed old mobile phone handsets as IoT sensors with old and inadequately secure hardware. Some manufacturers are considering building secure hardware rather than having insecure hardware and trying to secure it with software – a situation destined to start out on the defensive and remain there for the life of the device.
Data Protection is another consideration, especially if the things being monitored are reporting personal information such as your location, health and fitness status, bank account balance and more. If these devices are going to change your life for the better they have to know a lot about you. The data collected from personal devices could build a very detailed picture of your lifestyle. This picture may be very useful to monitor your health and fitness status and to enable you to keep accurate records of your whereabouts, food and drink intake and other information that help you to achieve your health and fitness goals and maybe even keep you alive. But what if all of this information fell into the wrong hands, whether that is to bombard you with ‘relevant’ marketing messages or for other nefarious means such as identity fraud.
Getting back to connectivity, from what we have discussed above we have already established that the primary connectivity medium at the edge of the network will use wireless technology. We also established there may be more than one layer of wireless connectivity to provide a path from the things to the data collection points. Here the data will be forwarded in its raw form to a central processing facility or gathered for local processing and then forwarding via a fixed or wireless network. We also established when discussing the security aspects that our dependency on the data collected by these things means that we must maintain the integrity of the data. If we are to achieve all of this and deliver a successful Internet of Things service we need inherently secure and reliable connectivity.
”Many corporate wireless installations are put in with little thought as to the RF environment and surrounding interference.”
In corporate or commercial network environments if we assume the edge device connectivity is going to be non 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac technology our design focus will move to the next tier which will be the data collector or hub to backhaul network connectivity. If this depends on 2.4GHz or 5GHz wireless networks this is likely to present some challenges due to existing congestion in these bands, especially the 2.4GHz band. Challenging doesn’t mean impossible. We just need to focus more on the RF design, Access Point positioning and configuration and the use of building structure and materials to work in our favour rather than against us
With careful planning and design consideration you will give your network a very good chance of trouble free service even in areas of RF congestion. Many corporate wireless installations are put in with little thought as to the RF environment and surrounding interference. A common issue we see even in commercial installations is domestic wireless devices inappropriately used in a dense RF environment. A prime example being shopping centres where every store has their own wireless network generally spilling out way beyond their store area. And if that isn’t enough, the shopping centre generally have their own wireless networks for staff and public network access for visitors. These very real problems could go to whole new level of complexity if every item in every store is wireless tagged and is exchanging information with their respective data collection devices.
”…her grandchildren will be the first to know whether the command was a success.”
We are going to be met with many new challenges as the Internet of Things takes shape. However, most of us will not have to deal with challenges on the same scale as Vint Cerf. He mentioned a particular challenge with one of the space programmes he is working on. Communication to a space craft heading out way beyond our Solar System with a ping response in the region of 100 years. If a scientist in the Space Control Centre issues a command to the space ship, her grandchildren will be the first to know whether the command was a success. Food for thought!
I will be exploring the slightly less challenging Earthbound Internet of Things in more detail in future blogs, including taking a look at some existing and potential real life applications. There may even be some killer apps amongst them.
Wikipedia – Vint Cerf
Wikipedia – Internet of Things
Wikipedia – Machine to Machine
Stanford News – Stanford engineers aim to connect the world with ant-sized radios