Dear Colleagues,

Objects around you are increasingly being embedded with a myriad of sensors and actuators – from your road way, body to your industrial process. Data from these sensors is then being transmitted over the Internet using the familiar TCP/IP protocols.

Kevin Ashton (from Proctor & Gamble) used the term: ‘Internet of things’ to refer to everyday objects autonomously communicating with each other.

There are incredible opportunities opening up in engineering and industry to apply these technologies and data to your work. When formerly inanimate objects can sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for discerning what is happening in remote environments and making decisions on the data - and quickly. It should be added that much of the decision-making is without any human intervention at all.

You are already probably aware of the tiny micro-cameras that you can swallow to view your gut to pick up sources of illness. Or remote farming equipment that takes into account weather and rain conditions, cars that brake automatically when detecting an object ahead or billboards that adjust their messages based on consumers passing.

The IoT will undoubtedly impact on your life in the next decade – no matter whether you are a plumber, plant operator, R&D scientist or CEO of a blue chip company.

Definite Growth
The Internet of things has finally come into its own. Technology costs have been steadily falling and the field is now enjoying wide support from the business community. According to the latest The Economist survey, only 6% of business leaders believe that the IoT is hype.  Admittedly, most businesses are still at the research stage but this is now changing to applications.

Manufacturing (as you would expect) leads the pack with financial services in the rear.

Key Findings from Research
This research has identified six key items:

  • Most organisations are well aware of the IoT.
  • Investment is still slow
  • Skills are required to unlock the full potential
  • Co-operation between (competing?) companies is required to make it work
  • Consumers will soon be swamped with IoT products and services (and many will not know it)
  • Everyone from businesses to consumers will be overwhelmed with data from IoT

What You Need to Know about IoT

  • There is a lot going on
  • It is not only about manufacturers but extends well beyond this
  • Skills Development is critical
  • Standards for connectivity are key to the success
  • No one knows what successful business models will encompass but one needs to start experimenting now.

Six Applications Lurking Out There
According to McKinsey there are six types of applications with the Internet of Things:

1. Tracking Behaviour.

Sensors track usage of equipment ranging from cars to the level of thrust of a jet engine to products moving through supply chains (using RFID). This data is then relayed back to make decisions on fees to charge for usage of a jet engine to instructions to adjust shipments of goods.

2. Environmental (or Situational) Awareness

Data from sensors (e.g. video/audio/flow) can indicate soil moisture, ocean currents, weather, rain, traffic intensity or intruders in a particular zone. Action can then be taken to re-route traffic or alert people affected.

3. Mass Gathering of Complex Data for Decision Making

Masses of sensors can gather data - for example for oil and gas and mining exploration (to locate high grade deposits) and feed this back for mapping. analysis, and decision-making. Similarly, with gathering data on thousands of shoppers on buying habits. From a health perspective, there is an opportunity to continuously gather patient blood pressure, heart rate and sugar levels; analyse this complex maze of data and then take action.

4. Process Optimization

We have been monitoring data from instrumentation for years but the lowering cost and smaller size makes for even better process control and optimization of flow, level, temperature, pressure and even faster ways of processing previously inaccessible data for slow moving analytical data (gas chromatography). Lower levels of process variation means savings in cost and also increased safety.

5. Smart Metering and the Smart Grid

Smart meters are increasingly being used to provide details of energy usage and real time costs to consumers and power companies. And allows one to reduce one’s costs by using power at low usage times.

6. Complex Autonomous Systems

Application of sensors and actuators to the car industry means automatic breaking and eventually self driving cars (perhaps allowing us to cut down on the million deaths per year due to car accidents). Or allow robots to roam freely in complex dangerous underground environments making their own decisions about where to go and what to do.

Big Concerns
Obviously one of the major concerns is the privacy of the data gathered and rogue sensors/actuators (robots?) endangering life and limb.

These technologies are not pie in the sky but being rolled out today. See if you can apply them in your next project.

Thanks to McKinsey Quarterly March 2010 for an interesting article.

John F. Kennedy's comment could be applicable to the Internet of Things: We need (wo)men who can dream of things that never were.

Yours in engineering learning,

Steve

The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) is dedicated to ensuring our students receive a world-class education and gain skills they can immediately implement in the workplace upon graduation. Our staff members uphold our ethos of honesty and integrity, and we stand by our word because it is our bond. Our students are also expected to carry this attitude throughout their time at our institute, and into their careers.