Google’s acquisition in January of NEST, the maker of a self-learning thermostat created by Tony Fadell, designer of the iPod, left many people scratching their heads. What would an internet giant want with a home appliance?
The answer is in the question – Google, and many other tech giants, entrepreneurs and inventors, have their eyes fixed on the future of the internet – a world where a myriad of devices, sensors and widgets connected wirelessly will gather and share data via Wi-Fi, 4G, Bluetooth or fibre – a world far removed from the computer screen of recent decades and the smartphone screen of today.
The internet of things is effectively the internet in physical form. Many consumers are carrying wearable devices, such as Nike Fuel bands to measure fitness.
The big trend in technology today is wearable computing. Recently, Samsung and Google unveiled their smartwatch technologies, and in the US, privacy debates are raging over people who wear Google Glass eyewear.
In France, a company called Babolat has even developed tennis rackets with sensor technology to analyse the quality of a swing and feeds the data to the user’s smartphone.
Inventors are putting the wireless capabilities to a variety of uses, from sensors in plants that tweet their owners when they need watering, to Wi-Fi controlled lighting and heating.
Connected objects worldwide
According to networking equipment maker Cisco, about 8.7bn connected objects existed worldwide at the end of 2012 and that figure is forecast to surpass 50bn by 2020.
Recently, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced additional funding of stg£45m for research into the ‘internet of things’ (IoT), which sees an increasing number of devices making use of sensors and connecting to the internet to share data.
In its third Action Plan for Jobs, the Irish Government also alluded to measures that included the IoT.
The IoT is tipped by Cisco to have generated US$613bn worth of global profits in 2013 alone.
In Galway, Cisco has a 170-strong R&D centre dedicated to the future of the workplace, as well as developments in areas like IoT. Mike Conroy, the operation’s general manager, said that while yes, there are 8.7bn connected objects in the world, this is just a tiny dent in what the IoT universe could be.
Cisco estimates 99.5pc of physical objects are still unconnected. Conversely, this means only about 10bn of the 1.5trn things globally are connected. At a more personal level, there are about 200 ‘connectable’ things per person in the world today in the home, at work, in the car, at the doctor, at play, all driven by advances in mobile technology. These facts highlight the vast potential of connecting the unconnected, Conroy said.
“The next wave of dramatic internet growth will come through the confluence of people, process, data, and things — the internet of everything (IoE)," Conroy added. Technology trends (including cloud and mobile computing, big data, increased processing power, and many others) and business economics are driving the IoE economy.
Understanding the internet of things
Prof Willie Donnelly, founder of the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) and head of research at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), said the internet as consumers know it revolves around humans interacting with one another via shared computer networks. To understand the IoT, he said, think of an internet generated by physical devices without human intervention.
“For instance, we can have pollution sensors on a street which can communicate with sensors in cars to regulate the cars’ acceleration and speed profile to minimise their emissions," he said.
In another example, a home or work environment can contain a number of sensors that collaborate to manage energy consumption in the room. When a room is unoccupied, the sensors will power down all devices and set the temperature to a reasonable level.
“Health sensors can also be incorporated into the home environment," Donnelly added. "In the case of the elderly, body sensors can monitor a patient’s well-being to ensure the environment is optimised to the patient’s needs. In the case of any degradation of the patient’s condition, it may transfer information on the patient’s status to a nurse, who can then intervene."
In the telecoms world, communication between devices that have a set mission, such as recording temperatures, footfall at a concert or football match, or diagnostics from the engine of a car, involves what are effectively mobile devices with SIMs inside them.
These devices, Donnelly said, are known in the telecoms industry as machine-to-machine (M2M) devices. In 2013, the number of M2M devices the mobile industry reached 195m, showing a growth curve of nearly 40pc per year between 2010 and 2013.
To market, to market
Estimates from various sources for the number of IoT-enabled devices coming to market by 2020 reach well into the billions, double-digit billions, such as 20m to 50bn. So it is becoming truly pervasive, Donnelly said.
“The utilities markets are a prime example," he added. "Devices are being used to more effectively manage power consumption within the home, industry, offices or shopping centres."
In each of these cases, the sensor networks are collecting and analysing usage behaviour to provide profiles to optimise power usage and minimise cost.
For instance, the smart electricity grid uses sensor technology to gather and act on information, such as information about the behaviours of suppliers and consumers, in an automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.
“Likewise, in the water industry, sensors can be used to monitor water flow, consumer usage and even to identify leaks in the network," said Donnelly. "Street lighting, pollution monitoring and traffic management use IoT technology to create a smart city environment, providing better management of city life."
Yet if the UK is investing stg£45m in its IoT what is a country like Ireland – synonymous with telecoms since the first transatlantic telecom cables were laid in the 19th century – doing to keep its edge, and how will the country benefit?
Ireland is a small, highly networked country with the potential to bring the key producers and consumers together to rapidly build and trial IoT solutions, said Donnelly.
In the first instance, he said, Ireland should be an early adopter of IoT technology. "We may initially focus on those areas where government is a major provider of financial support, such as waste management, environmental management, healthcare and urban development. The first generation of IoT solutions are bespoke and specialised to particular domains, such as energy and transport."
Donnelly added that the emergence of cloud computing information collected from IoT systems can be combined with information from the traditional internet to created intelligent solutions across a wide range of domains. Such platforms will drive the development of highly innovative good and services.
Ireland needs to focus on the development of the middleware platforms that can develop a whole range of new products and services in multiple industries, he said.
“The strategy should be to use IoT as a way of enhancing our leadership in those areas where we have a natural advantage, such as agriculture and tourism, and areas where we want to retain international leadership, such as biopharma, ICT/internet and medical devices, as well as public services to minimise cost through efficient use of resources," said Donnelly.
From Conroy’s vantage point at Cisco, Ireland has many of the components to be a leader in the IoT. Most of the world-leading ICT companies are based in Ireland and have significant operations and skills across compute endpoints, sensor devices, intelligent network transport, edge computing, cloud and data analytics – the end-to-end IoT ecosystem.
Ireland also has an internationally competitive research base that partners well with industry (such as the Insight Centre for Data Analytics and many others), arising out of Science Foundation Ireland’s priorities over the last five years and strategic research pillars that are well aligned to the broad IoT landscape and markets, said Conroy.
“By international standards, these are large focused assets skills bases and facilities that can play a major part as a hub for commercial collaboration and the promotion of public-sector adoption. Ireland has some unique industry partnership models that are differentiating and compelling to attract international investment," Conroy added.
There is also an increasingly and relevant indigenous company base in the area. In the near term, there is an opportunity for strong public-private consortia to build out national IoT platforms, promoting interoperability and standardisation, in partnership with industry, which will attract investment.
Device connectivity image via Shutterstock
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 23 March