In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations. - Neil Gross, 1999
Connect | Transform | Reimagine
Death, destruction, devastation. Three words that the generations to come would be using to summarize the wars of history. On a deeper thought, there is more to it under the table, than there is upfront. The post World War II era of political and technological stress that later came to be referred to as the “Cold War” is one of the pages of history that cannot be overlooked. Bifurcation of the globe into the Eastern and Western Bloc, with each sides betting much of their resources on the best of their countries’ minds, that were solely driven by the insane zeal of gaining hegemony. Somewhere in between this rat race without a finish line, there was the need for a more effective mode of transmission, storage and retrieval of highly confidential data.
The internet, as we know it today, is a massive global network that allows people to communicate with their devices, as well as with each other. Conventionally speaking, it is the users, the client devices and the servers between which the data flows. But a whole new category is being added up, that in a very unglamorous and casual way, can simply be referred to as “things”. Simply put, a “thing” is any object with an attached sensor capable of monitoring and transmitting a particular type of data further up into the cloud where it could be analyzed and put to use. From kitchen appliances, to automobiles; from scientific appliances like odometers, to monitoring disasters; and far beyond- all these objects that surround us today can be classified into these “things”.
Judging by the transforming curves of mankind’s needs, and even their uncanny intellect reflected upon the arrival of the concept of the internet in this world eventually, if not anytime sooner. But what had been much unanticipated, was the interaction and communication of not just people, but also daily life objects with one another through internet. With every passing day, more and more IoT devices are being launched into the market. So much so, that Samsung Co-CEO declared at CES 2015 that by the year 2020, 100 percent of their products will be “Internet of Things” enabled. It is safe to assume by now that there are much more “things” on the Internet, than the actual number of people alive in this world to use them. As a consequence, the total amount of global data flow is unimaginable. As rightly put by Dr. John Barret when asked about this digital world of information, he mentioned the current cloud of data is estimated to be around 4000 Exabyte, which is analogically equivalent to “a stack of books from Earth to Pluto, and back, 80 times”. Much of this is owing to the increasing establishment of network between everyday objects.
The concept of a network of smart devices was discussed as early as 1982, with a modified Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University becoming the first internet-connected appliance that was able to report its inventory and whether newly loaded drinks were cold. In 1994, Reza Raji described the concept of Internet of Things as moving small packets of data to a large set of nodes, so as to integrate and automate everything from home appliances to entire factories. Between 1993 and 1996 several companies proposed solutions like Microsoft's at Work or Novell's NEST. However, only in 1999 did the field start gathering momentum. Bill Joy envisioned Device to Device (D2D) communication as part of his "Six Webs" framework, presented at the World Economic Forum at Davos in 1999.
The concept of the Internet of Things first became popular in 1999, through the Auto-ID Center at MIT and related market-analysis publications. Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) was now being seen as a prerequisite for the Internet of Things. If all objects and people in daily life were equipped with identifiers, computers could manage and inventory them. Besides using RFID, the tagging of things may be achieved through such technologies as near field communication, barcodes, QR codes and digital watermarking.
In its original interpretation, one of the first consequences of implementing the Internet of Things by equipping all objects in the world with minuscule identifying devices or machine-readable identifiers would be to transform daily life. For instance, instant and ceaseless inventory control would become ubiquitous. A person's ability to interact with objects could be altered remotely based on immediate or present needs, in accordance with existing end-user agreements.
The Internet of Things revolves around increased machine-to-machine communication; it’s built on cloud computing and networks of data-gathering sensors; it’s mobile, virtual, and instantaneous connection; and they say it’s going to make everything in our lives from streetlights to seaports “smart.”
So much of the chatter has been focused on machine-to-machine communication (M2M): devices talking to like devices. But a machine is an instrument, it’s a tool, it’s something that’s physically doing something. When we talk about making machines “smart,” we’re not referring strictly to M2M. We’re talking about sensors.
A sensor is not a machine. It doesn’t do anything in the same sense that a machine does. It measures, it evaluates; in short, it gathers data. The Internet of Things really comes together with the connection of sensors and machines. That is to say, the real value that the Internet of Things creates is at the intersection of gathering data and leveraging it. All the information gathered by all the sensors in the world isn’t worth very much if there isn’t an infrastructure in place to analyze it in real time.
Cloud-based applications are the key to using leveraged data. The Internet of Things doesn’t function without cloud-based applications to interpret and transmit the data coming from all these sensors. The cloud is what enables the apps to go to work for us anytime, anywhere.
Speaking of structural aspects of the IoT technology, the small sensor at the “thing” end monitors a particular change in their programmed environment – like heartbeat, opening of a door, odor, etc. and either transmits this data directly to a smartphone, tablet, any other control unit; or rather sends this information to a secondary dedicated device that has an access gateway to internet, known as the IoT gateway. This data is then sent further up to the cloud from where it can be retrieved and monitored.
Contrary to the prodigiously astounding specifications of the smartphones that make use of multi-tasking operating system possessing a quad-core (or even an octa-core processor) and several gigabytes of RAM, a typical IoT device functions on a processor of just a few megahertz of frequency, and a RAM that barely ranges between 4KBs to 256 KBs. Also, much of the IoT products make use of the Low Power Operating System that saves a tremendous amount of power while performing its functions. The pretty obvious reason is that these operating systems are event driven, rather than utilizing polling, which means it avoids sampling the status of an external device by a client program as a synchronously after a specific period of time.
Companies like ARM are putting in best of their efforts to smoothen the road to a fully IoT enabled future. Towards the end of the year 2014, ARM announced a new operating system which it called “mbed OS” that supports all the important IoT protocols and also a variety of communication stacks like IPv4, IPv6, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 6LoWPAN, 2G GSM and 3G. It is aimed at boosting the development of IoT devices, and not just confining its usability to the multinational corporations, but at the same time keeping the doors opened for any individual hobbyist developer.
Today, we are seeing the electrification of the world around us. Almost any manufactured good now includes an embedded processor (typically a microcontroller, or MCU), along with user interfaces, that can add programmability and deterministic “command and control” functionality. The electrification of the world and the pervasiveness of embedded processing are the keys to making objects “smart.” Your old toaster that mechanically controlled the color of your toast now has an MCU in it, and the MCU controls the color of your toast. The toaster completes its task more consistently and reliably, and because it is now a smart toaster, it has the ability to communicate with you electronically using its touchpad or switches. After a device becomes smart through the integration of embedded processing, the next logical step is remote communication with the smart device to help make life easier. For example, if we are running late at the office, can we turn on our house lights for security reasons using our laptops or mobile phones?
Communication capability and remote manual control lead to the next step; how do we automate things and, based on our settings and with sophisticated cloud-based processing, make things happen without our intervention? That’s the ultimate goal of some IoT applications. And, for those applications to connect with and leverage the Internet to achieve this goal, they must first become “smart” (incorporate an MCU/embedded processor with an associated unique ID) then connected and, finally, controlled. Those capabilities can then enable a new class of services that makes life easier for their users.
For the network, sophisticated cloud-based processing requires a new generation of communications processors that can keep track of all of those connected devices, communicate with them and translate their functionality into useful services - all with nonlinear improvement to their performance and efficiency. The challenge will be to build secure networks that keep up with demand, while simultaneously reducing energy consumption and cost of equipment. This will require all kinds of innovations, well beyond the improvements Moore’s law can deliver.
Requirements common to all the use cases of IoT include:
- Sensing and data collection capability (sensing nodes)
- Layers of local embedded processing capability (local embedded processing nodes)
- Wired and/or wireless communication capability (connectivity nodes)
- Software to automate tasks and enable new classes of services
- Remote network/cloud-based embedded processing capability (remote embedded processing nodes)
- Full security across the signal path.
For the sake of discussion, let us analyze a typical day spent in a world surrounded with the IoT devices: Morning begins with the gentle vibration of the wrist band, an indication of waking up. The wrist band had been monitoring the general body mechanisms like metabolism, heartbeat as well as the sleep cycle. In case there are any abrupt alterations, the user is alarmed with a notification or a mail, and the reports are automatically delivered to a medical practitioner. Otherwise, on a normal day there is an initiation of a chain of events wherein multiple IoT devices communicate with each other. The room thermostat receives the signal to turn the air conditioning off (thus saving on power), and to moderate the temperature by allowing fresh morning air indoors. Smartphone notifies the user about the bathing water being warmed up. At the same time, the kitchen toaster and coffee maker starts up. While leaving home for work, the traffic monitoring system installed in the automobile describes the traffic conditions. With just the touch of a few phone buttons, the entire housing security system gets activated.
Let us see how Internet of Things would make our lives easier, productive and hassle free in years to come.
Products like the cellular communication enabled Smart Belly trash use real-time data collection and alerts to let municipal services know when a bin needs to be emptied. This information can drastically reduce the number of pick-ups required, and translates into fuel and financial savings for community’s service departments.
Irrespective of the fact that IoT would make human life easy, the future holds plenty of big challenges for the IoT, which is still in its embryonic stage. There are technological challenges related to the devices that collect and send data. Hardware and software issues include battery life, interoperability, compatibility, etc. Increasing reliability on IoT enabled devices arises a question of how far can this technology be trusted.
As humans advance from smart devices to smart homes, and furthermore to smart cities, these issues become more complex with all these devices sending data and receiving commands, it won’t be long before they become a primary target of the hackers. A recent security report from Intel’s McAfee labs alarms the people particularly about the IoT area as having potential to security threats. Of the 10 most popular types of IoT devices tested, 70% contained security exposures, whereas there were a total of 90% such devices that collected at least one piece of personal information. Hence, due to predicted fast growth of usage of these devices such issues are a major matter of concern.
The grand vision of the internet of things is currently an exercise in imagination. It is about what happens when more and more of the real, physical world comes online, as devices and sensors proliferate, connecting everything. With its mantra of “anything which can be connected, will be connected”, the promise is that the internet of things won’t just connect our homes, hospitals, schools and streets – it will enable whole new ranges of interactions, services and efficiencies. It’s not just about the things, in other words – it’s about the people and environments that animate them.
This wider vision of the internet of things is still evolving, with considerable excitement from tech firms, entrepreneurs and governments. But it’s far from being completely realized yet. Too much of human indulgence with the IoT devices is like riding a hot air balloon in the stormy skies. Though it is somewhat possible to glide through the windless skies, winds of thunder contribute to the ease and the thrill of the process. But careful there, we never know when things might get out of hands, and lead to an eventual fall. Hence a little more caution, and a little less dependence would otherwise be beneficial. Rest all that can be done, is sitting back, and contemplating as it takes on its beautiful course of evolution.