What is this (hot topic) ‘Internet of Things’?

InternetOfThingsAlmost every day topics such as Internet of Things, wearables, smart watches and home automation is mentioned in media and other sources. At least on remotely tech-oriented sources. Also mentioned in these contexts is considerations (or rather concerns) about security and privacy. These topics is close to my heart and I wanted to give my point of view on some of them, while also giving a brief introduction into the (mysterious?) area Internet of Things for those not really sure what this is. Kind of giving you a quick-start guide to encourage further reading. This post turns to both those without prior knowledge but with an general interest to learn what IoT is, as well as those already familiar with the topic who are ready to get started hands-on with IoT but want learn before they start. The intention is to follow up this general post with more detailed post digging into the technologies and how to get started when you actually begin building the first Internet of (Your) Things.

So what is this “Internet of Things”?

It is really hard to accurately define what Internet of Things (IoT) is using one short description. In general IoT is a concept where “anything” is connected to the Internet, or rather “anything connected to anything” (which is more true to the basic idea of IoT). We could called this “network of everything”. From my point of view, the best way to understand what IoT is actually is to talk about what it could be used for. The greater mening of the concept.

Automation (“smart homes” and industry automation) have actually been around for quite a long time. Historically (home) automation has been about enthusiasts creating nifty solutions for their private homes, mostly because it is fun but also to make their lives somewhat easier. It could be wirelessly controlled lightbulbs or automatic plant watering systems. Likewise the manufacturing industry has a lot of automation and monitoring going on. And aerospace research is also very much about automation and monitoring. One thing in common, from a historic point of view, is that these technologies where costly, inaccessible and often required some expert skills in electronics. And not to mention by far not as powerful as they are today.

The last decade this has truly changed. Today there is a lot of different, and cheap, solutions available to consumers. We have access to a extensive set of of-the-shelf consumer-friendly products to create smart homes. Additionally we have access to great amounts of processing power. All these devices getting cheaper, smaller and more energy efficient. And it is here we are getting closer to the true Internet of Things.

Basically IoT is about connected devices and sensors. Not necessarily internet-connected, but at least, connected devices. They could be connected to some local gateway/hub at your home gathering all data from these sensors or they could be connected to the Internet and the cloud. The benefit of IoT is when you have multiple devices connected to a common place where this data is aggregated and can be used to add new areas of use or to increase smartness of existing functionality. A temperature sensor is still just a mere temperature sensor until you pair it with one or more additional devices that can act on the sensor information to achieve new additional and/or smarter functionality (think of it as 1+1=3).

Internet of Things Simplified ArchitectureLet’s get a bit more technical

We could, generally speaking, look at IoT architecture using this simplified model with four layers/tiers*.

  1. Sensors and devices (collects data)
    This is where all information (data) is originated and created/obtained
  2. Hubs/gateways (proxies/sends data)
    In the web of interconnected devices, hubs is responsible for gather data from (possibly) multiple devices/sensors and distribute them throughout the network. Typically this layer is when data goes from being on-premise (local) and leave to the Internet/cloud (global).
  3. IoT software platforms/frameworks (stores and analyzes data)
    This is the very core of the IoT architecture where all data from all sensors and devices, via hubs/gateways, are gathered and stored. Typically this is the place where data being analyzed and some event could be triggered.
  4. End-user applications (visualizes and reacts on data)
    The fourth layer is where data actually becomes useful. I.e. this is when data either being presented/visualized or when data triggered an event that actually leads to something actually happens (a change of state of any kind).

* Each of these tiers could actually be combined into one and the same product/solution. It would be absolutely possible, and viable, to combine multiple sensors and one hub into one physical product. Or to combine tier 3 & 4 to create a service that both stores, analyzes and visualizes the data. Or in a particular situation you might want to have a local micro IoT at home where you have combined at least tiers 2 through 4 into one product and only have detached sensors. And all of this is only a simplified model with some examples as there is no definite rule exactly what IoT is and how is to be used.

Neither of these layer/tiers is technology or manufacturer specific. However between each tier there is a need for a common language or a contract for information exchange. It would be possible for a hub to use one language to receive data from sensors and another language to send data to a IoT framework. But the sensor cannot use different languages.

This general concept would work equally well with proprietary protocols and products as well as with open source products and standardized protocols. And it would work through Internet, a typical local computer network or any non-standardized “private network”. Both wired and wirelessly. Internet of Things is not a technique but rather a concept.

The BFF of IoT

IoT also have a best friend, or sibling, which is one key part when we move from simple automation to something really smart. Using “big data” – i.e. lots of processing power with access to huge amounts of data – we can make truly smart technology using predictions and analyzing of behavior patterns. Without “big data” IoT would be nothing more than a lot of connected devices without any greater meaning. Like a thousand people standing still in the same place, no one interacting with one another. That is lots of people, but quite meaningless as they don’t do anything. Compare this with these 1,000 people actually interacting with each other, exchanging experiences and together forming patterns. Think of this combined source of knowledge with one thousand brains in one place communicating with one another. This is IoT + “big data” – when this “network of everything” comes to life and becomes meaningful.

What is I(o)T good for and why should you and I use it?

A common (mis)perception of IoT is that every home appliance and device should be connected to the internet. However, IoT is not really about 50 million internet-connected fridges, but rather about connected sensors and devices where it makes sense. Sure, it would be cool if the fridge could order some milk when the milk is almost depleted. It’s arguable if that’s really practical. Maybe you want to wait just a little bit to order more stuff, or possibly you are about to go on vacation (and then you wouldn’t want milk in the fridge getting old).

Looking at a more practical approach to the fridge scenario could be: each package of milk could have a smart label armed with a sensor monitoring the state of the milk and a short range wireless communication unit (RFID/NFC). When the milk is nearing it’s end date the sensor sends a wireless signal to the fridge, which in turn could display a alert on the fridge’s display (or, by all means, it could also send a tweet or alert of some kind to your phone as well). Additionally your “remember the milk”-app (grocery shopping list) on your phone could have “one package of milk” listed as a suggested purchase. This could be both a viable and practical example scenario where IoT could enrich or simplify our lives.

To give a better idea on the multitude of scenarios where IoT in one way or another could be used I have collected some examples below. This is by no means a exhaustive list of all the possible scenarios. We should also expect many new ways to utilize the IoT concept that we cannot think of (or imagine) today. Much like we couldn’t predict what impact smartphones would have and how we would actually use them today.

  • Green tech – Smart technology to predict behavioral patterns to save energy consumption and use resources smarter. For example if we have smart heating systems that will report to energy suppliers about upcoming expected usage levels, time and
  • Home automation – Devices that make our traditionally “dumb” houses, smart. Mostly a matter of comfort.
  • Safety – Using various devices interconnected we could for example rest assured our kids have come home safely from school (and follow their way home). With connected locks the house could automatically get unlocked without the need to hand out physical keys to our kids or require the to remember pin codes.
  • Surveillance – Internet connected surveillance system monitoring your home, office or a public place like the subway.
  • Predict (global) health trends – Using wearables and behavioral patterns, maybe the combination of drugs for a particular illness sold, could give us quick indication of early stage epidemics
  • Optimized transportation – See patterns in how humans (or drones) travel and optimize the route accordingly
  • Proximity based interaction – based on your location and proximity relative to other things, this could be used as means of interaction and identification (or why not authorization of payments?)
  • Personal health monitoring – Map activity patterns and personal health status

There is also some examples of typical places where these devices and sensors could be used:

  • At home
  • In a vehicle
  • In an industry
  • On, or in, your body – aka “wearables”

A real world (hypothetical) scenario

To further clarify the benefit of IoT we could consider a more concrete scenario. Let’s begin with you, your home and a simple heat source (really doesn’t matter which type, but let us assume it is a electric radiator used to warm your house).

In the first stage, pre-IoT, your heater is simply on or off. When you set it to “on” it simply uses 100% of it’s maximum energi usage, regardless of how warm or cold your room actually is, and you have to manually control it.

Let us now take this to stage 2, the first step to a smart home. We add a temperature sensor with the ability to control your radiator – On or Off. This is what typically is called a thermostat. Now we have a basic micro IoT network with two (or actually three) devices. One input device (the sensor – thermometer), a hub (the thermostat with controller logic) and the output device (the heat radiator). With this basic setup we have somewhat intelligent heating that keeps our room heated without excessive usage of resources (electricity). However it is not really smart yet.

In the next stage, where we moving towards a more true IoT solution, we also add your telephones GPS to the mix. If the GPS tells that you are far from home the thermostat will lower the temperature with 2°C. And when the GPS reports you are getting closer than 2.5 miles from home it will begin heating back 2°C. Thanks to this smart approach you always have a perfectly tempered home, while at the same time have lowered your overall energy consumption (since there is no need to heat the room when you are not there). Already with as little as two sensors (GPS + thermometer) and one output device (heat radiator) connected to an IoT hub you have achieved a smart home with a smaller electricity bill.

We could of course stop there and be satisified. However let us also add another house to the mix, 5 miles from your home. This house also has an IoT gateway as well as an outdoor temperature sensor. Using the data from this house, with triggers on increasing/decreasing outdoor temperatures, we could predict the needs for heating at our house. So when the temperature drops at the other house we could begin increasing the heating in our house, and as our house hasn’t already being cooled down due to the lower outdoor temperature, we could run the radiator at a lower level which consumes less energi (i.e. more energy efficient). Another benefit is that we would attain a more stable indoor temperature as we can begin the heating before the temperature drops outside and thus avoid larger variations. Now we have a truly smart home which is even more energy efficient and also more comfortable.

At this stage we have achieved benefits mostly from a personal perspective, we have yet to achieve any greater benefit on a larger scale. Sure, our lowered electricity bill does contribute to an globally decreased need for energy which is environmentally good. Should we add another party to this mix – the power companies – we could attain even greater effects. Let’s consider if our, now smart home, also could communicate with the systems of power companies and let them know how our heating equipment currently operates, and also which changes our system has predicted. For example if our house is running at max levels and our neighbors house needs heating, the power company could tell our neighbors’ system to wait for a short while before starting. This is possible thanks to our house has reported that the desired heat level soon is achieved. Such intelligent system achieves two important things for power companies. First, their maximum energy supply level could be lower, secondly they can predict when they actually will need the power and thus minimizes the need to have overcapacity to manage unexpected peaks. The exact same pattern is equally applicable for washing machines, dishwashers etc. Looking at this at a grand global scale this could have a significant impact on global energy consumption and by extension the environment. And this is one reasons why IoT is so promising and interesting.

Security and privacy considerations

Wether you are a business creating your own products (alternatively an independent maker) or a consumer, you need to factor in aspects like security and privacy. Below I will shortly describe what I think these two aspects mean in the context of Internet of (My) Things.

Security

The security part is primarily about technical, digital and physical control of access. Every step of the chain must be as secure as possible. There will surely be a tradeoff between convenience and security and here you need to value how much convenience you are prepared to let go in favor of security. Or how much security you are willing to offer to gain convenience. From a consumer point of view this would probably be in the are of how you connect sensors/devices to the other parts of the system. And from a business side of things this would surely be related to how mature your audience is and thus how complexity they can cope with when handling your products. In either case security is paramount, both for individuals but to the market in general (should IoT and cloud based solutions be considered unsafe and unreliable the market will surely notice a significant setback). Security first, convenience second.

Privacy

In contrast to security, integrity isn’t that much about physical or technical limitations, but rather about how your information could be accessed and (mis)used. From a business point of view this is very much about anonymizing data before making it publicly available and to have a clear policy about storage and handling of end-users data. Looking at it from a consumer perspective this is mostly about choosing between lokal solutions (where you have full control) or opting for a cloud based solution. In the latter case the comnsideraton would be to choose a supplier who you trust and you find to have a authentic data integrity policy. And one last word of caution: without security there is no integrity. The first step is to secure the data and communication.

IMG-CAPA-IOTConclusion

What IoT really is about: gather lots of (sensor) data, process and analyze these large quantities of data, make predictions and finally make good things using these insights. Especially when we monitor and analyze data over sustained periods of times we can draw conclusions on behavior and be really smart and predictive when taking action.

Hope this gave you an basic idea what IoT is and the purpose/benefit of it. And please let me know what you think. Maybe there is something missing in this overview. Or it might be some part that needs further clarification. In any case I would appreciate the feedback.

Explanation of terms

Some new words, but what do they mean?

  • Internet of Things – A network of devices/sensors connected to each other
  • Big data – Large amounts of processing power analyzing biq quantities of data, and more importantly, the ability to do this i real time to instantly trigger an reaction based on the analysis.
  • Hub/gateway (in this context) – A sort of computer resposnible for send information between sensors and the IoT software/frameworks. This could also be called a proxy or a “middle man”.
  • Sensor – A (typically) small device with some sort of measuring/probing capabilities
  • Device (in this context) – Any form of electrical device that might be connected to the IoT network to supply the network with data (such as smartphones, wearables or computers in general). The difference to sensors is that these devices does not really measure anything, but rather supply data in other ways.
  • Wearables – small devices placed at, or within near proximity of, your body. Apple Watch for example.

Next step: hands-on with IoT technology

Keep an eye out for the next post in this series if you are interested in getting your hands dirty with IoT technology yourself.

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