The machines are coming: how M2M spawned the internet of things

18 May 2016

Cutting Edge: we look at what machine-to-machine (M2M) is all about and what the future holds for a world with more machines than people

There are now more connected machines than there are people on Earth and, with machine-to-machine (M2M) technologies enabling the internet of things (IoT), this is about to accelerate. Are we ready for the age of the machines?

IoT Week

At some point back in 2014, the number of connected devices in the world surpassed that of the human population, according to GSMA Intelligence, with 7.2bn devices versus 7.19bn humans.

Two years later, according to the GSMA’s real-time tracker, there are now 7.7bn mobile connections, including M2M devices.


We are entering a world where the internet will work for us, continuously and quietly, in the background; doing all the necessary, everyday behind-the-scenes tasks, from renegotiating home insurance to booking holidays, making smarter financial decisions to organising garbage collection and ensuring fresh milk is delivered to our smart fridges.

Cisco estimates the so-called IoT world of connected devices will grow to 50bn connected machines between 2020 and 2030. These connected machines won’t be like today’s connected machines, which require the usual human interface. Instead, they will talk to each other in the form of software agents using a confection of sensors: wireless technologies; 5G; Bluetooth; Wi-Fi; radio frequency identification (RFID), telemetry and GPS, to name a few.

These machines will take every shape and inhabit every corner of our lives. We could have internet-connected 3D printers and equipment on factory floors responding to fulfil e-commerce orders made on a whim, half a world away, via a virtual assistant embedded in a personal device. A self-driving car, communicating with other connected cars on the road, could pick you up from the office and bring you to your front door, which will be unlocked by your smartwatch, while intelligent light bulbs and smart meters might herald your arrival with welcoming lamplight and hot water for a bath.

The history of M2M


RADAR and SONAR were the grandfathers of LIDAR, the laser-based technology used not only in police speed-guns but to enable the self-driving cars of tomorrow, which will be internet-connected and rely on GPS to know where they are and Bluetooth to talk to smartphones and smartwatches. Radar image via Shutterstock

Machine-to-machine in today’s world mostly consists of devices with SIMs that are typically used in industrial applications to talk to other machines to relay data and control equipment.

During World War I, the British Board of Invention and Research instructed Robert William Boyle and AB Wood to embark on a sound detection project for anti-submarine warfare, enabling ships and submarines to ‘hear’ other machines under water. This morphed into ASDIC in 1920 and SONAR by the time of World War II.

Prior to World War II, the British Navy invented RADAR as a means of using machines to detect the proximity of other machines. During the war, the Brtish Navy also invented early GPS in the form of LORAN and Decca Navigator technologies for ships.

RADAR and SONAR were the grandfathers of LIDAR, the laser-based technology that will enable the self-driving cars of tomorrow.



During the Cold War, the advances in telematics, telemetry and radio, as well as the first concepts of the internet, evolved. Not many people know this, but the internet was originally intended as a way for the survivors of an expected nuclear apocalypse to communicate with each other.

In 1968, the US state of Minnesota first began using radio transmitters to track the movement of several hundred wolves. That same year, the father of M2M, Theodore G Paraskevakos (also the inventor of Caller ID), came up with the concept for M2M, whereby machines would automatically communicate with each other. Within a decade, he formed Metretek in Melbourne to create the first smart meters for electricity grids.

While all this was happening, factories started to become automated, with the first programmable logic controllers appearing in the 1950s, and the world saw the creation of SCADA systems, which were operating systems for assembly lines and power plants.

The next major leap in the evolution of M2M came in the form of intelligent barcoding technology, RFID, where passive tags would collect energy from a nearby RFID reader’s interrogating radio waves to track goods in warehouses. One of the first uses of RFID was in the early 1970s, when Los Alamos Laboratories used RFID tags on behalf of the US government to track cattle.

In 1973, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn invented the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP), to enable the exchange of data over networks. Just as the internet was about to change the world forever – thanks to Tim Berners-Lee inventing HTML to make it easier to use – the first digital cellular network, GSM, was deployed in Finland in 1991.

As of 2016, with 7.7bn mobile connections on planet Earth, some 240.1m are M2M devices. According to Statista, that figure is set to hit 360.9m by 2018.


M2M today


Nest’s smart thermostat is just one of the consumer-oriented internet of things/M2M devices designed to support the thoughtful home. The thermostat learns user behaviour to provide the right temperatures and interacts with other M2M devices, including smart light bulbs from Philips

Today’s M2M devices are designed to do specific things, such as relay temperature and location information from refrigeration trucks carrying food and medicine, analyse and report driver behaviour on behalf of insurance companies, and instruct soft-drink makers to resupply vending machines.

But, as these devices start to connect with the cloud and analytics via IoT gateways, the possibilities to enhance our lives, drive new services and reinvent entire industries become possible. As such, M2M is at the heart of the industrial internet of things (IIoT), powering smart factories that can be run remotely from a tablet computer, and smart buildings that monitor their environment and feed data back to the cloud.

‘Operators like Vodafone are actually abandoning the M2M branding and are putting it under the ‘internet of things’ label’

In the consumer world, M2M is inspiring a whole new generation of inventors. Tony Fadell dreamed up the Nest device to learn people’s temperature preferences in their homes, while Irish start-up Drop has created a smart connected weighing scales to help people cook and bake better.

Without M2M, the internet of things that will dominate our lives in future years would be a question mark, and the digital disruption transforming traditional industries would not be possible.


Self-driving cars will epitomise the M2M age as the cars will use a range of sensor technologies and interact with our personal devices and other cars to know where other vehicles – and humans – are on our streets and footpaths. Driverless car image via Shutterstock

In Québec, Rogers Cable will connect Hydro-Québec’s central system to 600 smart meter collectors, which will then aggregate data relayed from 3.8m smart meters throughout the region. Enniscorthy firm Taoglas is investing $2m in an IoT centre in San Diego to help technology and automotive brands design and create IoT and M2M products.

Taoglas designs the wireless M2M antennae that industrial giants from ThermoKing to Audi can deploy in their vehicles. Co-founder Dermot O’Shea said the company first began working on M2M when it was simply known as telematics, working to provide diagnostic information on vehicle performance for car manufacturers.

The company is now focused on emerging M2M opportunities, such as healthcare in the home and new categories of drones and autonomous vehicles. O’Shea added that the self-driving car phenomenon will accelerate after President Barack Obama gave the green light to $4bn in funding to put these vehicles on US streets.

‘The biggest challenge is that a lot of the M2M devices may be cellular devices but they don’t have specific identities, so this opens up a whole question around security and trusted services’

Dublin firm Asavie has won deals with Eir and EMC to enable secure operating networks for constellations of M2M devices, having created the connectivity platform for getting machines to talk to other machines in a secure and controlled way. Asavie has also partnered with another Irish company called Firmwave to create a low-power wireless sensor network platform built on Intel’s ‘designed in Ireland’ Quark processor to ensure secure communications from edge devices across a range of wireless types, from RFID to NFC, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GSM and Sigfox.

In a shrewd move, Cisco acquired IoT cloud developer Jasper Technologies for $1.4bn, putting the company at the heart of the IoT ecosystem. The move will enable makers of connected machines to bring products to market much faster.

Intel’s project to turn Dublin into the world’s first IoT city has begun with Croke Park, and more than 70 companies, as well as researchers from Dublin City University and Arizona State University, are working together to trial smart technologies in the Irish capital.

EMC and Vodafone have jointly invested €2m in a new INFINITE internet of things industrial platform that will traverse Cork, and which will provide facilities for the testing and exploration of technologies like M2M communications.

The future of M2M


Sigfox has strategically partnered with multiple site owners, including tower, rooftop and billboard sites. Together, the partnerships give the company access to more than 230,000 sites across the US. IDC forecasts that, by 2020, North America will have the world’s third-largest installed base of IoT units (7.5bn) and, correspondingly, the third-largest market for IoT-generated revenue ($1.9trn). Times Square image via Shutterstock

M2M has had different guises over the years, starting out as telemetry and turning into telematics before its current catchy title. Yet, soon, M2M could disappear as it gets swallowed up by the overall move by telecoms operators to be the key enablers for the internet of things.

According to Nick McQuire, enterprise mobility analyst at CCS Insight, many mobile operators such as Vodafone and Telefónica view the IoT opportunity as a way of competing with cloud providers and over-the-top (OTT) players like Google and Amazon.

‘Bluetooth is on the threshold of being the enabling wireless technology for the internet of things. There are other technologies like Wi-Fi and 5G, but it still comes down to power and range’

“Operators like Vodafone are actually abandoning the M2M branding and are putting it under the ‘internet of things’ label. Partly, this is historic. M2M has been associated with cellular and operators want to use the technology to drive higher value-added services,” said McQuire.

“While operators have lost ground to OTT players in terms of social media and other consumer services, the internet of things is a chance for operators to define themselves much earlier on and, for this, they need to build out their competency within the application layer and integrate with the backend.

“In time, M2M – or, simply, internet of things – is an opportunity for telecoms operators to move ahead of OTTs and build extensive application delivery tools in internet of things and get first-mover advantage.”

Last year, Wexford software company and TSSG spinout FeedHenry was acquired by open source software giant Red Hat for €63.5m, specifically for its technology, which helps operators to help businesses deploy mobile enterprise and M2M technologies. Cathal McGloin, VP of mobile platforms at Red Hat, said that the biggest challenge for M2M will be security.

“Once it was telematics and then it was M2M and now it is going mainstream. But the problem is there are now loads of devices out there communicating with systems that are behind a firewall. The biggest challenge is that a lot of the M2M devices may be cellular devices but they don’t have specific identities, so this opens up a whole question around security and trusted services,” said McGloin.

“We were recently dealing with a firm specialising in the military world and the problem they have with sensors everywhere is [asking] what sensors can you trust and [determining] which ones aren’t going to be a Trojan Horse in terms of data security.”

For Sven Mattison, co-inventor of Bluetooth and a senior researcher at Ericsson, 50bn IoT M2M-connected devices is just the start. He believes the biggest issue for M2M and IoT devices, overall, will be power and range.

“Backhaul capacity might have to increase by 1,000 times as the number of devices reaches 50bn. But I think so much of this will be invisible to people, supporting things that will work without effort,” he said.

“Bluetooth is on the threshold of being the enabling wireless technology for the internet of things. There are other technologies like Wi-Fi and 5G, but it still comes down to power and range and why it makes sense to build on things that have already been built. At some point, it might not be possible to extend the life of Bluetooth, and [it will be time] for something new to come along, but that day is far away.”

Another possible enabler of the IoT via M2M is a new network platform called Sigfox, which addresses the very power and range issue that Mattison pointed to.

Currently operating in 18 countries and registering more than 7m devices on its network, Sigfox owes its speed of deployment to the fact that its network requires lighter infrastructure than traditional wireless networks and only needs a limited number of sites in order for it to increase its network footprint.

Whether it will still be known as M2M, or form a part of the internet of things collective, it is clear that machines talking to other machines on our behalf is only the start of the next phase of humanity’s technology odyssey.

March of the machines image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years