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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.