The Internet of Things, or IoT, promises a revolution in how we gather and apply data. Billions of objects are already part of the IoT, and every one of those objects is constantly sending, receiving, collating and analyzing data. The result is a world that’s more connected, better informed, and better organized than ever before.
What is the Internet of Things?
The IoT exists at the system level, with several integrated components working together to make use of available data. There is almost no limit to the forms the IoT can take, but it usually consists of a few layers of operation, including:
- Data collection hardware – Data is the fuel that drives an IoT system, and the engine is the hardware that collects and delivers this data to larger nodes. Data collection hardware can be embedded into almost anything, and usually takes the form of a sensor, microcontroller, antenna or other data-gathering device.
- Data collation and transferring – Once data is collected from the system’s sensors and other hardware, it is sent to an IoT gateway or hub, which is often located in the cloud. This is the system’s middleman, providing a point of communication between data collection hardware and software used to analyze the data.
- Data analyzation software – This is essentially the brains of the system, as IoT makes use of various types of software to monitor incoming data and respond to it appropriately. Just as there is a variety of data collection hardware in an IoT system, there is an endless array of software solutions designed for IoT use. This could be managed through automated back-end systems or analyzed by a user through a remote interface.
What makes the IoT work is communication. Every part of the system communicates with each other and does so constantly, without the need for human intervention. The result is a system that adapts rapidly to changing conditions, which is something that has enormous potential in the commercial and private sectors.
A brief history of the Internet of Things
The IoT has emerged from a conglomeration of various technologies, and the term was first coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, a technology expert with Proctor & Gamble. However, though the IoT was first named by Ashton, the concept had been noted years before. The first smart device was probably a modified Coke machine at Carnegie Mellon University that could tell remote users whether or not cold drinks were present. In the early 90s, computing experts on the leading edge were already seeing the beginnings of the IoT, and Microsoft was putting its research teams to work on leveraging its potential.
Many consider late generation supervisory control and data acquisition systems, or SCADA, to be the first true examples of the IoT. Because SCADA leverages both hardware and software components to gather, deliver and analyze data, the comparison makes sense.
However, the IoT has emerged out of many other technologies, so it’s difficult to track its exact progress. Cisco estimates that between 2008 and 2009, more “things” were connected to the internet than people, and this the true birth of the IoT for many. No matter when it was born, though, it’s only gaining in importance.
By 2025, Hewlett Packard predicts there will be more than 1 trillion devices connected to the IoT, up from about 9 billion in 2013. The IoT is growing exponentially.
What can the Internet of Things do?
The short answer is – no one really knows the extent of the IoT. It’s still a novel concept, but it appears to have nearly limitless potential. Already, it is utilized in a diverse range of applications, from home automation to enterprise-level, big data initiatives. For instance, some heavy machinery manufacturers are embedding sensors in their engines to track performance and fuel usage. Some of these manufacturers are already reducing fuel use and emissions dramatically, improving the efficiency of construction, oil & gas and shipping fleets the world over.
This is just one example, though a major one, of how the IoT can change industries and the world for the better. There are many other applications that reinforce this point, including:
- Home automation – Home automation is big industry, projected to be worth about $80 billion by 2022, and it’s all made possible with IoT technology. Smart homes have seemingly been promised for decades, but with IoT integration, homes can do many things without people getting involved. For example, smart homes can automatically lock doors, change lighting levels, alter the home’s temperature, switch devices on and off and send various alerts to the home’s occupants. This last function can be leveraged to provide better home security and maintenance, like sending an alert when an appliance experiences an issue.
- Wearables – Wearables refer to anything that is worn on or attached to a person. They largely utilize sensors to monitor things like heart rate, respiratory rate or temperature. There are many applications that can be developed from this concept, including health, fitness and emergency response uses. For instance, firefighters and emergency personnel equipped with vitals-monitoring allow for a faster response should someone sustain injury. Wearables can also be embedded in fitness clothing to help athletes track their performance and health.
- Vehicles – Smart vehicles are already appearing, and they promise a revolution in driving. Vehicles with IoT integration can already monitor their own performance and maintenance, so they can last longer and operate more efficiently. This is only the beginning, though, because several vehicle manufacturers are working on automated driving technology as well. This requires extensive IoT architecture to ensure safe vehicle operation, but manufacturers are promising self-driving vehicles soon.
- Smart cities – Cities constantly have to face the kind of challenges that can only be solved with the proper use of data. For example, many cities have issues with energy distribution or traffic congestion, and these are problems that can be fixed with a clever IoT network. Traffic intersections, for instance, can be embedded with sensors that track how many vehicles enter the intersection at certain times, altering traffic light patterns in response to congestion. Many cities have already begun adopting this technology.
Smart cities can keep track of which areas have issues with water, energy or trash services. They can organize maintenance efforts more efficiently, provide more responsive customer service and target areas of waste, all of which will improve city services. IoT can also enable stronger surveillance, with monitoring systems collecting data on crime and helping focus crime-prevention efforts.
- Smart agriculture – The agricultural industry is one of the greatest beneficiaries of the IoT systems, and perhaps the most important use of the IoT so far. Smart agriculture is focused on getting more from farmers and their resources, ensuring greater yields and food availability. IoT data collection sensors can be embedded in the soil, detecting changing levels in moisture or nutritional composition. A second, also powerful, benefit of the IoT in agriculture is that advancements in growing can quickly be disseminated to other regions, reducing hunger around the world.
Not too long ago, the IoT would have read like something out of a movie, but it’s far-reaching effects are very real. As the IoT network expands, so does its potential, and it’s already bringing paradigm-shifting developments to several industries and sectors. In all, although the exact future of IoT remains undecided, it’s power to affect positive change is already proven.