M2M and the Internet of Things: A guide

M2M and the Internet of Things: A guide

Summary: The Internet of Things will consist primarily of machines talking to one another, with computer-connected humans observing, analysing and acting upon the resulting 'big data' explosion. Here's how the next internet revolution is shaping up.


M2M sectors

How is M2M being used, and what are its applications in the future?

Perhaps the canonical example of the Internet of Things (and the stuff of many a cheesy futurist visualisation) is the 'smart home'. The components include sensor-equipped white goods, security, lighting, heating, ventilation and entertainment devices, among others, all connected to a local server or gateway, which can be accessed by the appropriate service providers — and, of course, the home owner.

Link  AlertMe

Healthcare is another prominent M2M application, and comes under various banners including e-health, m-health, telemedicine and assisted living. Patients with non-life-threatening conditions can be issued with sensors (for blood pressure, or blood sugar levels for example), sent home and monitored remotely by medical staff — and can often be shown how to interpret the data themselves. This will free up hospital beds and physicians' time for more urgent cases. More generally, consumer-oriented sensors such as the Fitbit can encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles, helping to keep them out of the doctors' surgeries and hospital beds in the first place.

Link  mHealth Alliance

The smart home is a subset of the 'smart building' — which could be an office, a hotel, a hospital, a manufacturing facility, a retail store or any other public structure. All such buildings consume energy through heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems, and building automation systems can capture and analyse data from all relevant equipment, allowing cost-saving energy solutions to be created and implemented. Depending on the particular building, other subsystems that can be 'smartened' include structural health, access control and security, lighting, water, lifts, fire and smoke alarms, power and cooling for IT infrastructure.

Given the resources consumed by today's buildings (40 percent of the world's primary energy, according to The World Business Council for Sustainable Development), the potential monetary savings and environmental benefits on offer in this sector are immense.

Link  Smarter Buildings (IBM)

There are many reasons why 'smart' manufacturing is a good idea: digital control systems, asset management and smart sensors can maximise operational efficiency, safety and reliability, while integration with smart building systems and smart grids can optimise energy consumption and reduce carbon footprint. And, of course, the smarter the manufacturing process, the quicker it can respond to changing customer demand. It's no surprise to find that smart manufacturing is seen by western politicians as a way of increasing competitiveness in global markets, although there's no technical reason why Chinese manufacturers, for example, couldn't adopt the same processes.

Link  Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition

Automotive & transport
Today's cars routinely bristle with sensors and computing equipment, covering everything from engine management to navigation to 'infotainment'. Automobiles are rapidly becoming connected, context-aware machines that know where they are, where other vehicles are (both locally and in terms of regional traffic), who is driving (via driver face recognition) and how they are driving, and can warn of impending mechanical or other problems, and automatically summon roadside assistance or emergency services if necessary. A 'smart' car can be remotely tracked or immobilised if stolen, and new business models such as 'pay-as-you-drive' insurance can be implemented.

A lamp-post mounted (solar-powered) sensor/comms enclosure and an illustration of its use in traffic monitoring in a 'smart city' environment. (Images: Libelium)

The roads the cars drive on will become smarter too: in towns and cities, lamp-post-mounted sensors can monitor parking spaces, for example, and also warn drivers of congested areas.

Link  Transforming the In-Vehicle Experience with Connectivity and Context Awareness (Intel)

Supply chain
Given that passive RFID tags cost only a few cents, it's no surprise to find that M2M technology features heavily in supply chain management: the ability to track, in real time, raw materials and parts through manufacturing to finished products delivered to the customer has obvious appeal compared to patchy data delivered by irregular human intervention. Fleet management systems have long made use of GPS tracking, but cellular-equipped sensors can also monitor the condition of sensitive consignments (temperature for perishable food, for example), or trigger automatic security alerts if a container is opened unexpectedly.

Link  Perfect intersection: M2M and the supply chain

The sharp end of the supply chain — retail — is fertile ground for M2M technology, applying to areas such as in-store product placement and replacement, kiosks and digital signage, vending machine management, parking meters and wireless payment systems.

Link M2M Retail Solutions (Verizon)

Field service
Consumer devices, business equipment and industrial plants can all, obviously, suffer faults that require repairing. If these things are all 'smart', delivering real-time status reports to the internet, then field-service operations can be booked quicker, engineers can be equipped with the correct parts and manuals, and site visits can be scheduled efficiently.

Link  Sierra Wireless Field Service solutions

Utilities: smart metering and grids
Smart meters for electricity, gas and water, and the smart grids they create, form a major component of the M2M market. Real-time data on resource consumption down to the household level allows utilities to manage demand and detect problems efficiently, while householders can save money by optimising their usage patterns.

Links  Smart grids — transforming local networks / Current Cost

Security & surveillance
Most people are rightly wary of the Orwellian aspects of widespread automated security and surveillance technology, but there are also plenty of benefits to be had. Smart buildings, including smart homes, can have connected smoke detectors that alert emergency services when triggered, and activate only the appropriate suppression systems; connected burglar alarms can immediately identify the point of entry and motion sensors can track an intruder's progress in real time (the same sensors can identify and track legitimate occupants via wireless access-control systems).

Link  Centra Security Services

Environmental monitoring
M2M technology has great potential when it comes to monitoring natural or man-made environments. Suitably placed sensors can provide early warning of pollution, forest fires, landslides, avalanches and earthquakes, for example. More generally, air, water and soil quality can be remotely monitored in places of interest, and changes in the abundance and distribution of key species (wildlife or pests) tracked and changes to their habitats logged.

Links  Slip Surface Localization in Wireless Sensor Networks for Landslide Prediction (PDF) / Habitat monitoring with wireless sensor networks (PDF)

Smart agriculture is a growing field (as it were), with M2M technology available to track the location and condition of livestock, monitor the growing conditions of crops, and optimise the performance of farm equipment (using precise geolocation to minimise wastage in crop-spraying operations, for example).

High-value crops can be monitored by wireless sensors for a range of parameters (air temperature, humidity, soil temperature, soil moisture, leaf wetness, atmospheric pressure, solar radiation, trunk/stem/fruit diameter, wind speed and direction, and rainfall), with real-time data gathered by an on-site gateway, sent to the cloud and accessed via internet-connected PCs or smartphones. This information allows irrigation and other agricultural interventions to be precisely matched to local growing conditions.

Links  Smart Agriculture project in Galicia to monitor vineyards with Waspmote / Cows can text with M2M

Any world-changing technology is likely to have its darker applications, and M2M is no exception. Many military applications simply involve ruggedised and security-hardened versions of existing technologies, and this will apply to M2M as much as any other sector. Areas of particular interest to those in uniform are likely to be security and surveillance, transportation and logistics, healthcare and environmental monitoring.

Links  M2M Gains Military Traction / Blueforce Development (Tactical Response, Emergency Medical)

Topics: Tapping M2M: The Internet of Things, Cloud, Emerging Tech, Networking


Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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  • Excellent article

    A clear, comprehensive and prescient piece on M2M. Nicely done. (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest, just an interested observer).
    Manek Dubash
  • Informative Guide

    An easy to read concise overview of the M2M market and opportunities. Extremely beneficial for professionals who have interest in M2M.
  • No such thing as an H2H internet.

    "A point worth stressing is that data transfer patterns in the M2M-driven Internet of Things will differ fundamentally from those in the classic 'human-to-human' (H2H) internet. "

    There's actually no such thing as an H2H internet.

    Protocols such as TCP/IP don't actually care about whether the ultimate destination connects to a human or not. They just transfer data from one point to another. They are completely agnostic as to whether it's upload/download biased, and they are completely agnostic as to whether there's a human on the other end or not.
    • H2H internet

      In one aspect you are correct, in another you are wrong. Humans require monitors, keyboards, complex operating systems with applications. This is largely why the Internet is somewhat not built for M2M. The Internet you have known until now technically is and was H2H internet. The time is now to consider an adjoining M2M internet with new controls. You are correct TCP/IP is not equipped. The internet was built for war and got many things backwards, yet everything built was necessary. Machines have the capability to get straight to the business and even do calculations in the data itself. I believe it foolish that a merger of man and machine not forecast to make BIG PROBLEMS but you cannot stop proprietors that wish to push their wares. Telecom can help, they may soon if we're lucky.
  • You Miss The Point

    H2H doesn't have anything to do with network protocols. It's an observation of network traffic patterns - completely protocol agnostic - and network topologies.
  • At the heart of it all.

    At the heart of all this M2M, or the internet of things, are "Embedded Systems" without which none of it is possible. Now tell me that RIM's acquisition of QNX, a world leader in embedded systems, and their development of the BB10 mobile platform wasn't a very forward looking move on their part. RIM has been positioning themselves to be a leader in M2M for years now.
    • M2M lead

      Somewhat consider how universality is now trumping individual language. As everyone seeks to be the M2M leader, again many new languages are born. One or a few will win and some will perpetuate as a road block to clear communication again. Even the government knows Open Source helps a lot and it will be a winner here too. Diversity has it's own advantage in the natural selection theory of things. If only we could stop the diversity explosions in every little thing we build. This fuels a lack of security so badly.
  • Mess-up of terms?

    Don't you think that M2M and the IoT should be treated as seperate terms? An M2M-connection via Zigbee or other short-range communication protocols does not need any Internet-connection. It may be related to the concept of the Internet of Things. However, these terms should not be used synonymously.
    Dieter Uckelmann
  • Yeah, as soon as full IPv6 gets implimented

    If only all the firbre optic cable were in use. That would allow full IPv6. Then every cow could have its own IP address. With US's medieval version of internet and lack of sound leadership, this is going to take the next 15 to 20 years to roll out. Then 10 years to shake out how to really use it. The current internet infrustructure is not ready for prime time.
  • One word. Skynet.

    Am I the only one who thought that when he read about M-to-M?

    • @ecohistorical: Nope. Sky net was the first thing I thought of as well!

      After skynet, I also thought of the matrix!
      • Skynet

        We are closer to Skynet than you might think. This is why we need a broad discussion on how to protect our assets from machines, people that might tinker with them. Multicasts should have rung some alarm bells from a viral capability standpoint as well. Exponential disease spreading all by a machine is threatening. I believe we can still outsmart machines if we are not foolish as to give them free reign.
  • get it

    M2M is a little difficult to me ,but this article make me get some ideas ,it's nice
  • Many organizations are desperately looking for effective ways to comply

    I agree that "The Internet of Things, powered by Machine-to-Machine communication, is already with us, but remains a massive opportunity.

    Properly implemented, it can retool large parts of the world for better efficiency, security and environmental responsibility — and of course it can generate potentially huge amounts of business for the IT companies that will build and run the systems involved."

    It "can generate potentially huge amounts of business for the IT companies that will build and run the systems involved" and it will be based on Big Data.

    Many organizations are desperately looking for effective ways to comply to new stringent privacy regulations.

    I think that there are several gaps in privacy that need to be filled and now Big Data is adding to this issue.

    A Big Crisis is likely to occur very soon:

    1. A Big Data security crisis is likely to occur and few organizations have the ability to deal with it.
    2. We have little knowledge about data loss or theft in big data environments.
    3. I imagine it is happening today but has not been disclosed to the public.

    I recently read an interesting report from Aberdeen Group that revealed that “Over the last 12 months, tokenization users had 50% fewer security-related incidents(e.g., unauthorized access, data loss or data exposure than tokenization non-users”. The name of the study is “Tokenization Gets Traction”. This type of measurable information about security should be communicated to management. Data tokenization can also add business value and increase creativity by allowing more people to have access to more data in a less risky way than before.

    Ulf Mattsson, CTO Protegrity, +1-203-570-6919.
  • This is the future

    I like the article, very informative. There are many m2m languages that he could have listed. I hope he discusses his thoughts on a merger of man, machine on one set of communication lines. Is this prudent? Will machines come to be a nuisance to humans on their own communication lines?
  • On security

    With security at new lows, violation of encryption looming as a real possibility I think more companies should consider keeping some specific content offline entirely in the interim.