When Things Start to Connect

smart city and wireless communication network abstract image visual internet of things

We take a lot of things for granted. We use hundreds of objects everyday without thinking about them. Clothes, coffee machines and coffee cups, cars, roads, traffic lights, smartphones, computers, showers, newspapers, books, chairs and so on. But what if these objects were not so “dead”? Rather they could respond to their environment and we could communicate with them. Its not clear if we want to communicate will all objects, but for some it might be useful. We could tell our TV to switch on to a particular channel. We could tell the coffee machine to brew a double expresso. The car would inform us that it is due for a checkup and could even suggest a time slot using our calendar. This is what we call the Internet of Things and we are now in the early stages of this new technical wave.

Taking this to an enterprise level, consider products in a store. What if they could be tagged with a radio ID so that they could identify themselves? This is exactly what Radio Frequency ID or RFID does. For years, these small tags have been put on products, shipping containers, livestock and so on. With these tags, systems are able to track them. But an ID is kind of simple. We could also put sensors all around a city to monitor all sorts of changes in the environment. The enabling factor for this is that computers, sensors, wireless capability and so on are getting so small and so affordable that we can enhance normal objects that we use with “smartness” and connectivity.

So what exactly is the Internet of things? Professor Sanjay Sarma of MIT, offers a small but insightful experiment. Ask a kid about the lights in the house. Point to the lightbulb in the ceiling and point to the light switch on the wall and ask them “How is it when I hit the switch, the light bulb comes on?” Now if you think about this, us the older folks, kind of take this for granted. We know there are wires in the wall and ceiling connecting the bulb and the switch, and the switch will just make the connection and activate the electric current. But what would the kid say? The obvious answer is “Wi-Fi.” The light switch will of course talk with the bulb and ask it to turn the lights on! And this is what Internet of things means, having everyday objects connect to the Internet and send and receive data and commands.

While the question of the lightbulb and the switch may be a cute experiment, the eery question remains, which approach is really more cleaver.  If we think about it, the way we are building houses has remained basically the same for decades including lighting. The incandescent light bulb still used today is basically the same as it was when invented by Edison. Wi-Fi connected light system already exist today. Philips, the Dutch technology company, released in 2012 Hue, a Wi-Fi enabled lighting system for homes. You connect a base station (which is called a gateway) to your Internet router. Then each Hue lightbulb (which is called things) will wirelessly talk with the base station. With this setup you download an app to your smartphone and use that to send commands to the lightbulbs via the base station. Since each lightbulb can display any combination of colour the possibilities for lighting the home become endless.

While multi-colour lighting is really cool thing to have – and it is, there are more practical approaches to Internet of things. To explain the real benefits of this technology and why it will have huge impact as it transforms the world, consider an agriculture thing, a tractor.

Efforts to use machines for agriculture started in the 19th century with steam powered vehicles and in the first part of the 20th century the use of tractors and other farm vehicles and replaced manual labour on farms in the developed world. Tractor is a thing. It is just an object that does its job controlled by the operator. It can be used to tow equipment for ploughing, harrowing, planting and so on. But basically, machines like tractors are just analogue machines with the same functionally for decades. What if we take this tractor thing and add to it computing capabilities and sensors? This is the example Harvard professor Michael E. Porter and PTC CEO James E. Heppelmann use in their landmark Harvard Business Review article How Smart, Connected Products Are Transforming Competition.

We equip the tractor with small multiple computers. These could be location sensors, temperature and humidity sensors, and even cameras. Now we have a smart thing, a smart tractor. However, a smart tractor may have new and powerful capabilities but what did this smartness really add? It could provide useful information to the driver about the land and positioning in the field.

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An isolated tractor may be smart all right, but still it is limited as the information gathered by the sensors are just stored in the tractor and perhaps just displayed there. To make the tractor more useful, we add wireless capabilities. With that we have a smart connected thing or a smart connected tractor. But still, the real usefulness comes when we take all the information from the sensors and, through the wireless network, use them to create an ecosystem – a farm system.

This is where the true benefits of Internet of things is realised. All this information can be analysed and visualised allowing the farmer to make better decisions about how to manage the harvest. In addition to this, the field itself can have multiple sensors to measure all sorts of things and send these back to the farm system. With a system like this the field can provide valuable information in real-time, allowing the farmer to respond.

Agriculture is a perfect example of how Internet of Things can transform an industry. While there have been many advances with better equipment in the last decades, farming is still very reactive and built on imprecise knowledge of the numerous variables that must be adjusted on a daily basis in order to optimise the production and yield of crops and products. With a farm system, farmers have much better oversight of their farm, can use the land in a much more efficient way and become more productive in a cost effective way.

Farming is just one example. Now think about healthcare, transportation of goods and public transport, urban planning, retail stores, factories, and the list goes on. The Internet of Things is going to transform the world, both businesses and our lives.

This text is based on a new addition to the 2017 edition of New Technology 

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