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What is… the Internet of Things?

Apr 13, 2018 - Advice & Guides, Blog

Our Chief Technical Officer Adam Fleming continues his “What is…” series, this time looking into the Internet of Things concept in more detail.

 

Think of the internet as a set of all devices that can communicate via a public network.

Now, remove everything that needs human input or instruction – essentially, that’s the ‘Internet of Things’ or IoT.

Originally, IoT mainly applied to an industrial setting filled with automation, where sensors and control systems could communicate autonomously – no humans needed. These days though, IoT is branching out into our homes and workplaces.

As with so many technical areas, there’s a significant amount of hype surrounding IoT. Pretty much every consumer-electronic device has a “smart” variant – but just how “smart” that device is varies widely.

The poster-child use case for the home smart device was – for a long time – the fridge that knew when the milk was out of date or ordered more eggs when you were running low. As is often the case, this is both an accurate and an inaccurate representation of the promise of IoT.

The reality of smart homes

Whilst fridges with this kind of capability certainly exist – they’re still quite a long way from widespread adoption. Right now, for things that your parents or grandparents might use, the bar is somewhat lower.

Using my grandmother as the totally non-scientific test-case, the IoT devices with the most impact have actually been the simplest. The emergency alarm button which she now carries at all times in case of a fall has been (literally) a life-saver.

The smart thermostat that means she can control the heating without needing to walk down the stairs. The smart-meter which tells her how much energy she’s using at all times. The smart speaker that allows her to play any music she can think of without needing to search through her CD or tape (yes, tape) collection, or to switch the lights on or off without needing to walk across the room.

The scope of IoT reaches way beyond simple smart home applications, and it’s seeing increasing adoption across a breadth of industries.

Retro-fitting sensors to plant machinery means noise levels and vibration can be closely monitored, and the data then sent to a system that predicts likely failures. Or, they could collect regular temperatures from remote outposts, track RFID tags as they move through an assembly line, or monitor the stresses in buildings pre- and post-construction for safety.

There are a plethora of use cases, but the point remains the same – the increasing use and sophistication of small, smart connected devices which can operate autonomously and report data back from remote locations, means that many processes which were previously opaque ‘black-boxes’ can become safer, more transparent and more efficient.

The data trade-off

Of course, gathering and analysing all this data – especially in the home – brings with it all the privacy challenges seen in other big-data related systems.

Most people are aware of the issue of being tracked as they move around the internet. What’s less obvious is that, in addition to generating an “online footprint”, as smart devices become more prevalent, they generate a secondary footprint where indirect actions are potentially trackable.

In a fully-connected smart home, a system somewhere knows that the lights in your home have been switched on or off, that your smart-lock has been opened with your personal code, and that your home-security system has been activated or deactivated.

None of these things are sinister in their own right, but combined with many other pieces of information, they can provide a far clearer picture of your behaviour than you might expect.

Of course, the data collected through IoT is subject to the same privacy controls as data collected in any other way – the incoming GDPR legislation in particular makes it very difficult for your data to be used without your permission.

But there’s always a trade-off.

Systems need data to become intelligent – many of the systems behind smart devices are based on machine learning and these are naturally very data-hungry. The price of smart systems may be the use of your data.

Fragmentation vs adoption

One final challenge to IoT is fragmentation. As vendors scrabble to produce cheap smart devices, the efforts to standardise struggle to keep pace. As a simple example, I use smart-plugs in my home – and as the archetypal geek, I have models from around 5 different vendors.

Whilst I can control all of them through a central point thanks to the magic that is Amazon Alexa – as soon as I need to modify the setup, or set them up again, I’m back to trying to remember which app controls which plug, and what my password was for that particular vendor. Until the process of installing a smart-plug is as simple as plugging it in, they’re going to struggle with adoption outside of the tech-savvy community.

That’s a simple example – when you look at something like smart-sensors for a security system it gets more complex. Ideally, I’d like to be able to use the motion sensors from vendor A, with the window-lock sensors from vendor B and the main control system of vendor C.

Without some form of standard around how the sensors interact, it’s impossible to mix-and-match in this way – but as it stands, there’s no incentive for the vendors to cooperate on such a standard, so you end up with “standards” being produced by each vendor – with no compatibility between.

What comes next?

IoT is still in the land-grab phase of development – in an industrial setting, platforms such as Siemens Mindsphere and GE Predix are establishing a strong foothold leveraging their positions in industrial automation.

In the home, it’s a little less clear – a number of consumer brands such as Samsung and Bosch are establishing their own IoT offerings – but these tend to be focussed on their own products rather than integrating “all the things.”

In the background, the main cloud vendors (AWS, GCP, Axure) are all establishing their own offerings which can be used to build IoT solutions. Whilst efforts like Amazon Alexa allow for the control of devices from disparate vendors, this isn’t quite the integrated world that is promised by IoT.

I would expect (and hope) that a standard will emerge over the coming years that will allow the data that’s being reported by devices to be viewed in one place, and instructions to be sent to those devices in a uniform way.