As far as buzzwords go, the Internet of Things is in a league of its own. It has been described as the defining technological trend of the next decade, but is this true? Or just hype?
Gartner Hype Cycles provide a graphic representation of the maturity and adoption of technologies and application. They can be useful tools to get educated about the promise of an emerging technology.
Topping the Hype Curve for the past two years running has been Internet of Things (IoT). It has been described as the defining technological trend of the next decade. The hype is around the projections that IoT technology will impact the vast majority of business processes in virtually every industry, effectively transforming the internet and our economy as we know it.
IoT refers to the integration of physical objects with a range of communication technologies, enabling them to be monitored and/or controlled remotely over the internet. However, it is far from simple. The spectrum of technologies that enable IoT include advanced electronics and sensor/actuator technologies, next-generation communication networks, cloud services to store the massive proliferation of data, Big Data analytics to make sense of it, mobile app development to interface with it and a whole range of protocols to enable it all to work together.
It is most easily understood in terms of consumer products where wallets, sunglasses and keys could be tracked from your phone. However, what is getting the major technology firms excited is the potential in the business-to-business (B2B) space, where up to 70 per cent of the economic impact of IoT is expected to be realised.
“People approaching the Internet of Things face a steep learning curve across a number of different technological fields to make it all happen.”
According to consultants McKinsey & Co, the B2B IoT solutions market will reach nearly $5 trillion by 2020. And Cisco estimates that the ‘at stake’ economic potential of IoT in 2020 will be $19 trillion.
IoT could fundamentally change business processes. While initial efforts will focus on operational efficiency, the real impact is around offering new products and services and a move to what is being described as an ‘outcome-oriented economy’. For example, one of the earliest waves of IoT applications was in wearable monitoring devices for the physical fitness market. Vendors of such systems originally focused on hardware, but some now offer health plans based on the levels of physical activity undertaken by the customer.
Even traditional areas like civil engineering can benefit from IoT. For example, Smart Structures is a company providing sensors to be embedded into concrete during the pouring and curing process, with data communicated wirelessly for analysis.
Governments around the world are driving investment in IoT technologies. Germany is driving its ‘Industrie 4.0’ initiative focused on advanced manufacturing. South Korea is focusing on the automotive industry, while Singapore is developing a smart cities focus. In Australia, the NSW Department of Primary Industries recently partnered with Cisco to establish an IoT innovation centre primarily focused on agriculture, in partnership with a number of farming bodies as well as other organisations essential to driving innovation including UNSW, Data61 and business incubator ATP Innovations.
Engineers who have worked in automation will be quick to point out that many of the examples are possible using existing technologies and control communication protocols. However, the control environment is rapidly changing due to a convergence of technological drivers.
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However, there remain a wide range of challenges that, broadly speaking, relate to the business and technical aspects of IoT.
Chet Geschickter, research director at Gartner, said: “The first set of hurdles are business-related. Many organisations have yet to establish a clear picture of what benefits the IoT can deliver, or have not yet invested the time to develop ideas for how to apply IoT to their business. The second set of hurdles is the organisations themselves. Many of the survey participants have insufficient expertise and staffing for IoT and lack clear leadership.”
The foremost challenge is cyber security. The prospect of hackers being able to take control of cars, ovens, industrial assets and any other internet-enabled device has all the ingredients for a blockbuster Hollywood disaster movie.
Another major technical challenge is interoperability and the wide range of competing protocols. Many vendors have had internet-enabled devices in the field for many years now. However, they mostly only work when all the connected components operate inside a custom system developed by that company.
“In the future it might be standard for wallets, sunglasses and keys to be sold with embedded electronics that enable you to track where they are from your phone.”
McKinsey estimates that nearly 40 per cent of the potential value, on average, will require different Internet of Things systems to communicate with one another and to integrate data.
Bowing to pressure from major operators and competitors, many vendors are now opening up their devices, but this has led to a wide range of competing communication protocols.
ITEE College Chair and CEO of Genesys Electronics Design Geoff Sizer warned that the big constraint will be human talent.
“People approaching the Internet of Things face a steep learning curve across a number of different technological fields to make it all happen,” he said.
“Generating enough people with the required skill sets may well be the main constraining factor driving the update of IoT technologies.
Sizer says identifying the right connectivity solution or even who to contact is an issue.
“For example, if you ring any of the major telcos today with an IoT connectivity problem they generally don’t know how to handle you because they are geared toward assisting mobile phone owners,” he said.
“So there are a number of challenges still to be overcome. That is why it is so important to upskill engineers in this area.”
A key driver of IoT has been the relentless miniaturisation of computer chips, sensors, actuating devices, and radio transceivers in microcontroller ICs. This trend has now reached a tipping point where embedded systems can now be built into things and devices of almost any size.
A second major driver has been the growing pervasiveness of internet connectivity options and growing customer expectations of being able to connect to any device using their mobile phone. The main connectivity challenge has been developing communication systems optimised for low power and low data transmission rates that can penetrate dense physical structures and wide geographical areas.
A completely new generation of wide area networks are now being piloted and rolled out across the world, including SigFox and LoRaWAN. In addition, most cellular network providers are now looking toward 5G networks that will cater to the needs of IoT devices as well as their high-bandwidth customers.
Coverage outside of cellular range is important in the agricultural, transport and environmental industries. Again, this challenge is being overcome by satellite technology providers such as South Australian company Myriota.
A final driver has been the growth in data processing capability underpinned by the advent of cloud storage systems and the use of Big Data analytics in meshing different data sets to create actionable insights and outcomes that were previously unattainable from standalone industrial control systems.
It is now possible for engineers to put together monitoring and control solutions with a vastly larger number of devices at a fraction of the cost.