The Internet of Things

April 1, 2011
Sensors and actuators have been connected to the Internet for decades, usually with proprietary protocols that are connected to Internet protocol (IP) networks through gateways. With the emergence of the smart grid, smart cities and smart homes, more and more objects are becoming interconnected.

The term “Machine-to-Machine (M2M)” discussed previously (Automation World, August 2004) related to the technologies for machines to exchange information over IP. That’s just a subset. The profound potential lies in the integration of everything—the ability to connect sensors, actuators and many other ordinary products into a “digital nervous system.”

The term “M2M” was coined by the radio-frequency identification (RFID) development community about a decade ago. That phrase, now dubbed Internet of Things (IoT), relates to everyday objects that are readable, recognizable, locatable, addressable and/or controllable via the Internet. Predictions are that tens of billions of these types of “smart” objects will be Internet connected within the next ten years.

The capability to transmit information about status, performance and usage for objects anywhere in real time points to the potential for intelligent devices that can interact with people and social networks. In fact, combining device connectivity with social networking platforms opens the potential for substantially new forms of collaboration between people and things. Connectivity of people and connectivity of devices would no longer be independent.

Since 1981, Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) has been the publicly used version, and it is currently the foundation for most Internet communications. Growth of the Internet has already created a need for more addresses. IoT would have to encode 50 trillion to 100 trillion objects, which is vastly more numerical addresses than IPv4 is capable of. This will demand the use of IPv6, which allows for extremely large address space. However, switching from IPv4 to IPv6 may be difficult.

Applications everywhere

The Internet of Things is likely to have a staggering impact on our daily lives and become an inherent part of areas such as electricity distribution, transportation, industrial controls, utilities management, healthcare, water resources management, and oil and gas distribution.

IoT will help solve two of today’s biggest problems: energy and health care. Buildings currently waste more energy than they use effectively. This waste can be cut to almost nothing using broad-scale monitoring and control. The smart grid and smart homes will include widespread IoT monitoring.

Health care is currently delivered inconsistently with doctor and hospital visits. IoT will allow sensors unobtrusively attached to the body to keep track of vital functions all the time. Food intake will be monitored; pill bottles will indicate when to take medicines; wine glasses will signal excess imbibing.

Higher yields could be achieved in agriculture, with productivity increased and costs lowered by using solar-powered crop-watering equipment and embedded wireless devices linked to data from satellites and ground sensors. These could take into account growth conditions, temperatures and weather variations in order to adjust the way each field is watered.

Automation companies have begun exploring the potential for use of IoT-based technologies as an information platform. ABB is developing a collaborative device community that will enable a system to interact with end-users and service engineers. By enabling the device to be operated in a collaborative community, problems are quickly resolved. More importantly, diagnostic approaches are captured and readily available for reuse.

The convergence of smart devices with the Internet is creating a growth inflection point. Companies that fail to exploit this next wave of the digital revolution will obsolete themselves. The companies with the most IoT-equipped products and services will win.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: [email protected]. Or review his prognostications and predictions on his Web site:

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