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.
In its initial phase, all of the internet's IP addresses were assigned to computers of one sort or another. Some of these were servers, and a growing number were clients that mostly consumed (but could sometimes modify) content on those servers.
As the internet — and in due course the worldwide web — developed, more kinds of (increasingly mobile) computing devices became connected, and web servers delivered ever richer content with which they could interact. Although this first internet/web revolution changed the world profoundly, the next disruptive development, in which the majority of internet traffic will be generated by 'things' rather than by human-operated computers, has the potential to change it even more.
There's many a slip between a potential brave new technological world and a reality that could improve the quality of life of a significant proportion of humankind.
This 'Internet of Things' (IoT), or more prosaically 'Machine to Machine' (M2M) communication, is well under way — after all, microprocessors are to be found in all manner of 'things': domestic white goods, cars, credit cards, your passport, your family pet, the CCTV camera in your street, the lift (elevator) in your office and many more. Add the magic ingredient of internet connectivity (or the ability to be read by an internet-connected device), bake with applications and services that make use of the data gathered by this vastly expanded network, and you've cooked up another technology revolution.
However, as the aforementioned book discusses at length, there's many a slip between a potential brave new technological world and a reality that could improve the quality of life of a significant proportion of humankind. Whether the Internet of Things comes to pass in a satisfying way will depend critically on how the emerging M2M ecosystem is architected.
The anatomy of M2M
Any new field comes with its own concepts and jargon, so it's useful to map these out as clearly as possible: our taxonomy is outlined below.
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. M2M communications will feature orders of magnitude more nodes than H2H, most of which will create low-bandwidth, upload-biased traffic. Many M2M applications will need to deliver and process information in real time, or near-real-time, and many nodes will have to be extremely low-power or self-powered (eg. solar powered) devices.
Things The 'things' in the IoT, or the 'machines' in M2M, are physical entities whose identity, state (or the state of whose surroundings) is capable of being relayed to an internet-connected IT infrastructure. Almost anything to which you can attach a sensor — a cow in a field, a container on a cargo vessel, the air-conditioning unit in your office, a lamppost in the street — can become a node in the Internet of Things.
Sensors These are the components of 'things' that gather and/or disseminate data — be it on location, altitude, velocity, temperature, illumination, motion, power, humidity, blood sugar, air quality, soil moisture... you name it. These devices are rarely 'computers' as we generally understand them, although they may contain many or all of the same elements (processor, memory, storage, inputs and outputs, OS, software). The key point is that they are increasingly cheap, plentiful and can communicate, either directly with the internet or with internet-connected devices.
Comms (wide-area) For long range, or wide-area, links there are existing mobile networks (using GSM, GPRS, 3G, LTE or WiMAX for example) and satellite connections. New wireless networks such as the ultra-narrowband SIGFOX and the TV white-space NeulNET are also emerging to cater specifically for M2M connectivity. Fixed 'things' in convenient locations could use wired Ethernet or phone lines for wide-area connections.
Some modular sensor platforms, such as Libelium's WaspMote (left), can be configured with multiple local- and wide-area connectivity options (ZigBee, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GSM/GPRS, RFID/NFC, GPS, Ethernet). Along with the ability to connect many different kinds of sensors, this allows devices to be configured for a range of vertical markets.
Server (on premises) Some types of M2M installation, such as a smart home or office, will use a local server to collect and analyse data — both in real time and episodically — from assets on the local area network. These on-premise servers or simpler gateways (right) will usually also connect to cloud-based storage and services.
Local scanning device 'Things' with short-range sensors will often be located in a restricted area but not permanently connected to a local area network (RFID-tagged livestock on a farm, or credit-card-toting shoppers in a mall, for example). In this case, local scanning devices will be required to extract data and transmit it onwards for processing.
Storage & analytics If you think today's internet generates a lot of data, the Internet of Things will be another matter entirely. That will require massive, scalable, storage and processing capacity, which will almost invariably reside in the cloud — except for specific localised or security-sensitive cases. Service providers will obviously have access here, not only to curate the data and tweak the analytics, but also for line-of-business processes such as customer relations, billing, technical support and so on.
User-facing services Subsets of the data and analyses from the IoT will be available to users or subscribers, presented (hopefully) via easily accessible and navigable interfaces on a full spectrum of secure client devices.
M2M and the Internet of Things has huge potential, but currently comprises a heterogeneous collection of established and emerging, often competing, technologies and standards (although moves are afoot here). This is because the concept applies to, and has grown from, a wide range of market sectors.
How is M2M being used, and what are its applications in the future?
Homes 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 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.
Buildings 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.
Manufacturing 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.
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.
Retail 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.
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.
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).
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.
Agriculture 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.
Military 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.
Machine-to-machine (M2M) technology is growing in importance — but which industries have already adopted it, which are likely to, and how big is the market?
Machine-to-machine communication is seen by technologists, analysts and major companies across the world as the next great tool to revolutionise business. However, predictions for the size of the market vary and uptake, so far, has been limited.
In 2004, BusinessWeek predicted that M2M would be a $180bn market by 2008. If you believed that, you'd have been disappointed by a 2007 report from The Economist putting it at around $35bn. By 2010 the market had climbed to $120bn, according to information from M2M specialist Machina Research — two years late and still $60bn off the original BusinessWeek projection. The latest Machina Research report predicts the M2M market will grow from $200bn in 2011 to $1.2 trillion in 2022:
Any advanced technology is prone to false starts and an excess of hype. Wildly optimistic predictions were made for Segway scooters, for example, but the mass market never materialised. Similarly, we've been told for years that fusion power, quantum computing, strong artificial intelligence, robotic cars and electric vehicles are just around the corner. Again, none of these technologies have yet fulfilled their promise.
M2M is certainly happening, but the market is fragmented into numerous verticals. Right now there are around 110 million M2M devices connected to the internet, according to Juniper Research. By 2017 this is expected to climb to 400 million. The numbers bandied about obviously depend on the definitions used, however: Machina Research, by contrast, puts the number of M2M connections at the end of 2011 at two billion, and expects this to grow to 18 billion by 2022.
M2M is the next ubiquitous technology. Get ready
According to Frost & Sullivan, the areas driving this growth will be the automotive industry, with new 'smart' cars; utility companies with smart grids; healthcare and security, along with home automation. Machina Research, meanwhile, puts the top growth-driving vertical markets in the following order: intelligent buildings, consumer electronics, utilities, automotive and healthcare.
According to Cisco, the next nine billion or so devices connected to the internet in 2020 will use M2M technologies. Many of these devices will be used to link the physical world to the internet via sensors that take readings from their local environment and output the information up into the cloud.
For this reason, the entire field is being forced to grapple with questions around data preservation, communication and integrity — and far earlier than other similar technology sectors have had to.
Estimates of the size of the M2M market and its likely growth vary, but the widespread influence that this technology will undoubtedly have is concentrating the minds of all kinds of companies. Those whose M2M strategies succeed will have as much sway over our lives as smartphone vendors and mobile operators do today. M2M is the next ubiquitous technology. Get ready.
Conclusion 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.
Many technology sectors stand to benefit from this new world order, including mobile network operators and fixed broadband providers, system integrators, cloud service providers, mobile app developers, sensor and wireless infrastructure vendors, and purveyors of Big Data infrastructure and analytics.
In an ideal world, M2M equipment will interoperate smoothly, service providers will compete on a level open-standards playing field without attempting to lock customers into their ecosystems, and the Internet of Things will develop with the same explosive inventiveness as did the original internet. The remaining articles in this series will explore how likely that is to happen, and present some examples of M2M in action.