The Invisible Edge of the Internet of Things

Embedding everyday materials with intelligence is the frontier of the Internet of Things space.

Vogel (left) and Louchez
Vogel (left) and Louchez

A couple of years ago, Professor Ian Akyildiz, Chair of the Telecommunications Group at the Georgia Institute of Technology, when interviewed by the BBC famously said “the inevitable end point [of the Internet of Things] is the internet of nanothings” (Source: “Internet of Things: Trash Talk Signals Mobile Future”, BBC, May 14, 2013).

According to the working definition provided by ISO, the International Organization for Standardization: “Nanotechnology is the understanding and control of matter and processes at the nanoscale, typically, but not exclusively, below one hundred nanometers in one or more dimensions where the onset of size dependent phenomena usually enables novel applications.”

Body sensor networks (e-health) come immediately to mind as illustrative examples of the application of nanotechnology within the Internet of Things (IoT) space. It is indeed “inevitable” that the Internet of nanothings will revolutionize healthcare on a global scale. The growing gap between the demand for and supply of healthcare services favors solutions that rest on remote monitoring and tracking. Actually, it is not if, but when such solutions will become mainstream. With the continuous inflow of significant technological breakthroughs, the timeframe for adoption might be much shorter than what is commonly anticipated (see for example energy harvesting through the use of “nanogenerators” that use body movements such as the pinch of a finger to generate electricity).

However, beyond healthcare, the nano revolution in the making is broad and deep. “Nanosensors are expected to lead to revolutionary applications, including early disease detection that can result in faster treatments and better outcomes, as well as the early and accurate detection of environmental pollutants, contaminants, and even biological or chemical weapons. Due to the diverse nature of these potential applications, nanosensors are expected to impact multiple sectors of the economy, including the healthcare, pharmaceutical, agricultural, food, environmental, consumer products, and defense sectors” (Source: National Nanotechnology Initiative).

The Internet of Things, which can be briefly interpreted as a metaphor describing the arrival of anything and everything that is not a human being (i.e., the foundation of the “Internet of People”) into the communications space thanks to technological and societal converging trends, will be shaped in great part by “nano thinking”.

Clearly, the trend to incorporate smaller and smaller sensors and actuators in the IoT fabric is getting stronger. The increasing pervasive use of Microelectromechanical Systems or MEMS e.g., accelerometers) in IoT devices bears testimony of this trend. But the accelerating need for devices at smaller scale (such as Nano Electromechanical Systems or NEMS) is equally strong, so strong that the current conversation on IoT edge computing should not ignore it.

As it stands now, the interface with the world, in order to measure, monitor, and control it, is done via add-on sensors and/or actuators. It is a logical step, but certainly not a final one.

The same way DVD writers, which used to be peripheral equipment, are now integral to a computer set of features, sensors and actuators will be embedded into the material: the material will inherently have sensing and/or actuating capabilities.

While still a work in progress, research in integrated electronics, the so-called “Next Generation Electronics” has in its sight the integration of the intelligence with the material. In a not too distant future, the “things” in the “Internet of Things” or the IoT edge won’t be a distinct sensor and/or actuator, but, rather, the material itself.

Challenges and Opportunities for Integrated Electronics Research
Historically, integrated electronics has focused primarily on scaling the dimension of silicon-based devices (Moore’s Law). Until recently, very little has changed in the materials and design of these silicon devices. Alternative materials and device structures such as “fins” or nanowires of silicon are now required to continue device scaling. Although increasing computational speed will likely continue for the foreseeable future, new paradigms are becoming as or more important. The concept of system-on-a- chip where new functionality (e.g. MEMS devices such as chemical or biological sensing) is performed on a silicon platform is an increasingly important paradigm.

But the continuing reduction in cost and the accelerated miniaturization of the computing capability support are pushing even further nanotechnology into the IoT edge. Researchers are now extending their efforts not only on the “constituent material” of the sensor/actuator but also, and certainly disruptively, the “host material”, which will house the sensor/actuator. This research is at the core of the Next Gen Electronics, and will revolutionize the way things are manufactured and used.

The Manufacturing Transformation: Embedding Everyday Materials with Intelligence
As argued elsewhere, advanced manufacturing is central to the development of the Internet of Things, and any and every object will need to have embedded in them the “potential for intelligence.” Today, tiny conventional (typically silicon-based) electronics are still separately manufactured, and therefore are still “added on” to the material. The next generation of electronics will integrate intelligence directly into everyday materials.

Current advanced research focuses on how to modify conventional materials (textile fibers, paper, etc.) to insert intelligence capabilities in a way that make them integral to the material, which, as a result, will morph the everyday material into a sensor and/or actuator.

For example, conventional materials like paper and cellulose have interesting properties that make them good candidates for high tech upgrades. They are light (considerably lighter in weight than current circuit platforms); malleable (can be trimmed with scissors or perforated for easy tearing): accessible (cost-effective); flexible (can be stored in small spaces and developed into 3D self-standing structures); ubiquitous (can be found everywhere, e.g., disposable cups, books, packaging, etc.) and recyclable. Imagine cheaply embedding a GPS unit into the address sticker for every packaging container or developing textile fibers which can sense, communicate and, perhaps, control local temperature for the person wearing the clothes.

The above examples provide just a glimpse into the wide range of possibilities provided by the insertion of nanotechnology into everyday materials.

Standards Needed to Avoid the Fabrication of Intelligent Products with Cacophonic Capabilities
The IoT industry is presently bubbling with many IoT standards projects. While Standards Developing Organizations (SDOs) have been working for quite some time on developing IoT/Machine-to-Machine communications (M2M) standards, in the last eighteen months, we have witnessed an acceleration of related initiatives around the world.

In addition to vertical market-related standardization efforts, some are critically focusing on the architecture itself. A few examples without any order of priority are IEEE’s Working Group P2413’s architectural framework for IoT, IP for Smart Objects Alliance (IPSO)’s reference architecture centered on an IP-based IoT stack, Cisco-led seven-level Reference Model announced at the recent IoT World Forum held in Chicago, IBM’s proposal for an IoT architecture using Bitcoin’s block chain (Adept platform), and the Digital Object Architecture (DOA) advocated by the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) for which the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) approved in September 2013 Recommendation ITU-T X.1255 “Framework for the discovery of identity management information” that can be considered as a first step towards the DOA.

The edge is obviously a key component of the contemplated architectures. In some instances, edge computing, where the extreme endpoints are taking over centralized nodes for the transformation of raw data into actionable information, is at the center of the proposed framework. If materials of all sorts are going to become the de facto endpoints, standards must recognize this fundamental change underway and take into account the limitations and constraints as well as the opportunities offered by this new environment.

Conclusion
Tremendous advances in science and technology will facilitate the direct inclusion in the communications realm of things heretofore completely foreign to it. Walls, desks, clothes, shoes, pipelines, cars, and infrastructure components among other things will have the potential to become in and of themselves the edges of a vast communications network generating a gargantuan amount of data. Today, this is possible through add-on proxies, i.e., sensors and actuators inserted “after the fact”, sometimes, almost as an afterthought. Tomorrow, everyday materials will be their own sensor, actuator and even energy harvester.

Beyond the immediate security and privacy issues these new possibilities will generate, they will redefine industries (e.g., semiconductors), create new ones (e.g., maintenance), transform business models and functions (e.g., marketing) while demanding new education and training.

Dr. Eric M. Vogel is Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Deputy Director of the Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology (IEN), and Associate Director for Shared Resources of the Institute of Materials at Georgia Tech. A prolific researcher, he is the author of over one hundred fifty publications and five book chapters, in addition to many other scientific and technological contributions mostly related to devices and materials for future electronics.

Alain Louchez is the Managing Director of the Center for the Development and Application of Internet of Things Technologies (CDAIT) at Georgia Tech. He has organized and spoken at several events related to Internet of Things (IoT) standards around the world. He will be keynoting the IoT conference (“The Internet of Things: Beyond Connectivity”) on December 2-3, 2014, during Bakutel, in Baku, Azerbaijan.

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