Purpose: This article provides a journalistic style overview of the Internet of Things and its relation to engineering.
Going where no "thing" has gone before
By Dr Tim Kannegieter
As far as buzzwords go, the Internet of Things (IOT) is breaking all records. Topping the Gartner Hype Curve for the last two years running, it has been described as THE defining technological trend of the next decade. The hype is around the projections that IOT technology will impact the vast majority of business processes in virtually every industry, effectively transforming the Internet and our economy as we know it.
IOT refers to the integration of physical objects with a range of communication technologies, enabling them to be monitored and/or controlled remotely over the internet. However, IOT is far from simple. The spectrum of technologies that enable IOT include advanced electronics and sensor/actuator technologies, next generation communication networks, cloud services to store the massive proliferation of data, big data analytics to make sense of it, mobile app development to interface with it and a whole range of protocols to enable it all to work together.
IOT is most easily understood in terms of consumer products. In the near future, it may be standard for wallets, sunglasses, and keys to be sold with embedded electronics that enable you to track where they are from your phone. Likewise, your fridge will call your phone when the door is left open.
However, what is getting the major technology firms exited is the potential in the business-to-business (B2B) space, where up to 70% of the economic impact of IOT is expected to be realised. According to McKinsey the B2B IOT solutions market will reach nearly $5 trillion by 2020. Cisco estimates that the "at stake" economic potential of IOT in 2020 will be $19 trillion. If such estimates are borne out, it would mark one of the strongest economic growth periods in human history but there are significant challenges in realising the potential.
Estimates vary but the number of connected devices by 2020, could be as high as 20 billion to 40 billion. This is actually causing a crisis for the internet which will run out of available network addresses in the very near future. The mainstream 32 bit IPV4 protocol has a maximum of address space of about 4.3 billion. A new 128 bit protocol, IPV6, has been developed and will support 3.4x1038 network addresses.
Where the rubber hits the road is the perceived ability of IOT technologies to fundamentally change business processes. While initial IOT efforts will focus on operational efficiency, the real impact is around offering new products and services and a move to what is being described as an outcome oriented economy. Outcomes could include guaranteed up-time, energy savings or crop yield. Such guarantees would require much higher levels of end-to-end process integration enabled by IOT technology.
For example, one of the earliest wave of IOT applications was in wearable monitoring devices for the physical fitness market. Vendors of such IOT systems originally focused on hardware but some are now offering health care plans based on the levels of physical activity undertaken by the customer.
In the B2B space, my favorite example is the internet enabled garbage bin. Sensors can determine how full a bin is and so contractors only need to come to the bin when it is full. It is thus possible to optimise the pickup route and owners of the bins only pay for emptying bins that are actually full.
Another city example is the growing number of examples around the world of car parking spaces in city precincts that are internet enabled. Drivers can use their smart app or in-vehicle navigation system to take you right to the free space closest to your destination, or even to reserve your space prior to arrival.
Healthcare industry is another fertile area for IOT. Hospitals and providers such as Qualcomm Life are now moving toward allowing patients to return home sooner with an array of connected devices allowing physicians to continue to monitor patients remotely.
In aged care facilities, it is now possible to track patient vital signs, movements and other needs, optimising the workflow of busy staff. It is also possible to monitor if the patient is taking their medicine with internet enabled caps on bottles tracking dispensed doses and the timing.
In agriculture, the idea of internet enabled cow is no longer fantasy, being replaced by the idea of an IP addressable broccoli. For example, the Open Agriculture Initiative by MIT has given an IP address to individual plants in its laboratory linked to a range of sensors and actuators regulating and optimising its growing environment. Once harvested, food is already being transported in internet enabled shipping containers that allow contractors to detect and correct refrigeration malfunctions, even on the open sea.
Even traditional areas like civil engineering can benefit from IOT. For example, Smart Structures is a company providing sensors to be embedded into concrete during the pouring and curing process, with data communicated wirelessly for analysis.
Most IOT case studies today are relate to innovations by product and service providers. However, many governments around the world are now looking to drive investment in IOT technologies in industries they perceive they have a national advantage and can export their expertise. For example, Germany is driving its 'Industrie 4.0' initiative focused on advanced manufacturing. South Korea is focusing on the automotive industry, while Singapore is developing a smart cities focus.
In Australia, the NSW Department of Primary Industries recently partnered with Cisco to establish an IOT innovation centre primarily focused on agriculture, in partnership with the a number of farming bodies as well as other organisations essential to driving innovation including UNSW, Data61 and business incubator ATP Innovations.
Engineers who have worked in automation, including the use of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) or machine-to-machine (M2M) applications, will be quick to point out that many of the examples are possible using existing technologies and control communication protocols. However, the control environment is rapidly changing due to a convergence of technological drivers.
A key driver of IOT has been the relentless miniaturisation of computer chips, sensors, actuating devices, and radio transceivers in microcontroller ICs. This trend how now reached a tipping point where embedded systems can now be built into things and devices of almost any size at an affordable cost with sufficiently low power to enable batteries to operate the devices for up to ten years. This trend is opening a vast new landscape of potential applications for control systems.
A second major driver has been the growing pervasiveness of internet connectivity options and growing customer expectations of being able to connect with any device using their mobile phone. The main connectivity challenge has been developing communication systems optimized for low power and low data transmission rates, that can penetrate dense physical structures and wide geographical areas.
A completely new generation of wide area networks are now being piloted and rolled out rolled out across the world, including SigFox and LoRaWAN to name but two. In addition, most cellular network providers are now looking toward 5G networks that will cater to the needs of IOT devices as well as their high-bandwidth customers.
Coverage outside of cellular range is important in the agricultural, transport and environmental industries. Again, this challenge is being overcome by satellite technology providers, such as South Australian company Myriota.
A final driver has been the growth in data processing capability underpinned by the advent of cloud storage systems and the use of big data analytics in meshing different data sets to create actionable insights and outcomes that were previously unattainable from standalone industrial control systems.
The main difference between the old SCADA/M2M approaches and the promise of IOT is that it is now possible for engineers to put together monitoring and control solutions with a vastly larger number of devices at a fraction of the cost. It is expected that this new environment will spawn the rise a large number of entrepreneurial businesses providing niche solutions and engineering firms that provides integration services for custom applications.
However, there remain a wide range of challenges which, broadly speaking, relate to the business and technical aspects of IOT.
Chet Geschickter, research director at Gartner, said: "The first set of hurdles are business-related. Many organizations have yet to establish a clear picture of what benefits the IoT can deliver, or have not yet invested the time to develop ideas for how to apply IoT to their business. The second set of hurdles are the organizations themselves. Many of the survey participants have insufficient expertise and staffing for IoT and lack clear leadership."
Among the technical challenges, the foremost is that of cyber security. The prospect of hackers being able to take control of cars, ovens, industrial assets and any other internet-enabled device has all the ingredients for a blockbuster Hollywood disaster movie. The key issue is that having a large number of remote devices provides an obvious target for hackers to access systems.
Making sense of that data will be a challenge, especially for companies that struggle to take advantage of the data they already have. The ability to deploy big data systems to draw actionable insight from the wealth of data is being seen as a key competitive differentiator in the IOT space. In fact, IOT is driving another paradigm shift away from cloud computing to what is being called fog computing. Fog computing pushes more computational processing to the edge of the network, closer to (or in) the devices themselves, so that only a smaller subset of data needs to be transmitted.
Another major technical challenge is interoperability and the wide range of competing protocols. Many vendors have had internet enabled devices out in the field for many years now. However, they mostly only work when all the connected components operate inside a custom system developed by that company. The real value proposition of IOT comes into effect with any device can operate in any system, regardless of vendor.
McKinsey estimates that nearly 40 percent of the potential value, on average, will require different IoT systems to communicate with one another and to integrate data “Relatively little of that is happening now,” McKinsey said.
Bowing to pressure from major operators and competitors, many vendors are now opening up their devices but this has led to a wide range of competing communication protocols. Hardly a week goes in the IOT community where yet another initiative in announced to bring together all these competing protocols. Observers of the industry have noted the similarities with the range of competing technologies when the internet first came out, including the browser wars. These issues were all sorted out in the end and the expectation is that the same will occur for IOT.
ITEE College chair and CEO of Genesys Electronics Design Geoff Sizer warns that the big constraint will be human talent.
“People approaching IOT face a steep learning curve across a number of different technological fields to make it all happen,” he said. “Generating enough people with the required skill sets may well be the main constraining factor driving the update of IOT technologies.
“In any given IOT application it’s a challenge identifying the right connectivity solution, managing the SIMs and IP addresses, building the system to manage the data and communicate with the devices, which will usually be in the cloud. In addition, customers often want a mobile app to go with it. If the system goes off line, it can be a problem knowing where to go to resolve the problem with so many different players involved.
“For example, if you ring any of the major telcos today with an IOT connectivity problem they generally don’t know how to handle you because they are geared toward assisting mobile phone owners. In addition, they don’t really get the need for 100% reliable connections that many engineering applications require.
“So there are a number of challenges still to be overcome. However, once we have worked through these as an industry, I think we will be overwhelmed with the number of applications people want to develop. That is why it is so important to upskill engineers in this area.”
This need to upskill engineers is the inspiration for a community of practice being established by Engineers Australia. The Applied IOT Engineering Community aims to help engineers to use IOT technologies to lead the innovation in their organisation, industry or field of expertise. The community will also assist members address technical challenges in applying IOT. You are invited to join. For more information see the boxed article.
Dr Tim Kannegieter is Knowledge Manager in the Learned Society business unit of Engineers Australia.
Edited by Tim Kannegieter