Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a marketing buzz word used extensively the last few years, but IoT is a vision that has been around for some time now. The term was first coined by Kevin Ashton in 1999. Applications of IoT even if they were to a quite immature level, existed since the use of RFIDs in systems.

I am working on R&D and have participated in various research projects, so I had the chance to see many use cases and applications for the Internet of Things (ranging from mechatronics and car manufacturing to assisted living). Also, I have built prototypes and experienced first-hand the challenges for getting from a research prototype to commercial product.  In this post I would like to provide a brief introduction to the Internet of Things, its enabling technologies and its existing or potential applications.

The Internet of Things (IoT) concerns a world where all physical objects, living beings and in general everything tangible in the natural environment is available for communication through the Internet and uniquely identified. In essence, in IoT sensors, actuators and wireless technologies come together to make physical objects interconnected through information networks. The value of this network of devices exchanging data is in the data itself, or to be more correct, the value is in the applications that are possible with the use of such data.

Entities in the natural environment always produced vast amounts of data, but the data were not captured. Now, physical objects are getting seamlessly integrated and interconnected, so we can capture the generated data, store them, use them and make sense of them. 

This realization of the Internet of Things is enabled by technological changes, with the main of them being:
  • IP addresses, the introduction of IPV6 which uses 128 bit addresses provides 3.4x1038 unique addresses to cover the needs (for now)
  • Network bandwidth has increased dramatically with 4G motivated by the extensive of mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets
  • Cloud data storage decreased the costs of storing data
  • Emergence of standardized ultra-low power wireless technologies
  • Integrated precision-analog capabilities
Moreover, another transition is taking place, which concerns the type of information captured. The information captured and considered of interest used to be mainly data generated and entered by humans such as ideas, business processes, advertising, banking and market transactions and later with the explosion of the social media platforms the vast volume of social content. But with the highly increasing number of objects being interconnected and autonomously gathering data, the volume of data generated by devices will be significantly greater and the nature of the captured data will change and will probably require different algorithms and attract other types of interest. With the development of adequate artificial intelligence applications and Machine to Machine (M2M) communication, the objects can collect data autonomously as well as act autonomously based on the inputs they receive.

And where this movement is heading? Soon more things (devices) will be connected to the internet, they will process and analyze incoming data and adjust their behavior automatically based on the input. They will be interoperable enough to create a system of systems. 

This change in my opinion will change the current environment, the way of doing business and many manual labor positions will be replaced by devices. But this change will also offer (and already does) many other business opportunities, such as:
  •  Raise the demand of devices, for example more people will make their homes "smarter" and purchase devices with such capabilities
  • Development of new applications over the devices, since the increased market will provide many new opportunities for profit
  •  New markets, innovations and technology get more and more integrated into our daily life 
  •  Associated technologies will continue being developed for serving this new reality (databases, data analytics, networking, hardware)
However there are still challenges that need to be faced, including:
  • The lack of adoption of common set of standards, which are necessary for the interoperability and creation of system of systems
  • Security, since devices (potentially part of sensitive and critical systems) are connected to the Internet, thus could be tampered with
  • The lack of regulations by international laws, over IoT applications - for example in case of accidents caused by devices and their programmed behavior. This one seems extremely difficult to me
From my experience not many businesses are open to change. Many well known industries and manufacturers use decade old software systems, rely heavily on MS excel sheets and in general are not keen in changing things "that work". And it makes sense, since changes usually present some problems and when we talk about automobile or aircraft building industries for example, some minutes of problem in the operations would mean to lose millions. On the other hand, innovation and more effective ways of doing things are critical for retaining competitive edge. 

Despite the challenges though, the Internet of Things is already present in our lives and it seems that will be more and more integrated in our everyday life in the near future. The areas which it will have the most presence and impact include:
  • Smart cities and environment
  • Smart metering
  • Industrial control
  • Healthcare
  • Home automation
  • Retail
  • Security and emergencies
This concludes my brief introduction to the Internet of Things, the first of my posts about interesting technologies. Comments are welcomed and more stuff are coming up soon!

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