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IoT Tech Day showcases Benelux innovation

At the latest annual internet of things event in the Netherlands, the IoT moves from the geek's shed to the industrial plant, with some fantasy thrown in

The annual IoT Tech Day in Utrecht, Netherlands, gives an overview of Dutch developments and other European innovations. The 2017 event provided further evidence that the internet of things (IoT) is moving from the geek’s bedroom to an industrial scale.

This year’s event featured hobby projects such as light-sensing curtains that automatically open and close, but also showed that the IoT is growing up to encompass more serious applications, including smart services for consumers and innovations for business use.

In sync with this ongoing development of the IoT itself was the line-up for the IoT Tech Day. The IoT is now maturing into cloud-enabled innovation, creating some surprising synergies, although there are still nerdy things around, such as Michael Teeuws’ Magic Mirror, and connected toothbrushes and smart hairbrushes.

One surprise this year was Google Wind, announced nationally just a few weeks before the event. Google’s Dutch division unveiled an ambitious project to connect, automate and utilise the Netherlands’ historic windmills. The idea was to identify incoming clouds and respond to them by blowing away the rain storms that plague the infamously wet country. Perhaps the combined wind power of this “internet of windmills” could provide the Dutch with a bit more sunshine. Also planned was the production of localised rainfall.

“Holland is one of the greatest countries to live in, but the biggest downside is that it rains 145 days a year. That is why the Google Cloud Platform team in the Netherlands is launching Google Wind this spring.” So read Google’s announcement, endorsed by Dutch weatherman Piet Paulusma and internationally known DJ, Armin van Buuren. The project pitch was loaded with buzzwords such as control modules, machine learning, orchestration and moonshot.

“Test results look very promising,” said Google at the end of March. Sounds a little far-fetched? Well, Google announced this IoT project on 1 April – so in fact it was all a joke. None of it was real. Or was it? Actually, it wasn’t total fantasy. The joke was real, but so is the underlying technology. The combination of cloud services plus Google’s open source library for machine learning, combined with datasets from different sources, is possible and available.

“Creativity is to connect the seemingly unconnected,” said Google engineer Matthew Feigal at the IoT Tech Day. He told the gathered developers that the real value of IoT is not in connecting A with B, or X with Y – “but X with C”.

Read more about the IoT

Now, windmills and the whimsical idea of controlling the rain is a bit too far out. But this April fool’s joke by Google Netherlands does shine a light on the possibilities. Who would have thought to connect food distribution centres with electric cars? But that is exactly what the store-less supermarket Picnic has done. This young company delivers groceries on-demand and direct to consumers in selected Dutch cities.

Picnic’s delivery minivans are actually connected cars. These IoT devices on wheels are just part of a self-developed IT operation that also includes the distribution centres, the items they contain and, of course, the app on customers’ smartphones. This smart system takes care of matters such as delivery times, route optimisation, product picking, order sorting and supply ordering. The result is free delivery, good service, and guaranteed low prices.

“The perception once was that e-commerce was limited to expensive non-food items, such as like fashion and electronics,” said Picnic CTO Daniel Gebler at the IoT Tech Day. In the first dotcom bubble, there were pet food and nappy delivery startups, which burned their way through large investments and crashed hard. The lesson learned seemed to be that e-commerce was not for cheap items such as food. But Picnic is proving this wrong with its efficient logistics, thanks to the innovative application of the IoT.

This did not come easy. It took three years of hard work in secrecy before the company went public in the summer of 2015. Two months later and a former toothpaste factory in Amersfoort was the venue for the official launch of the app-driven online supermarket. Less than two years later and Picnic is a showcase for e-commerce success enabled by the IoT.

Terminator and Avatar

The IoT Tech Day was also host to myriad other IoT applications, systems, projects, ideas and gadgets, drones, robots and other geekery. Some of these things are of Dutch origin, others come from foreign developers, inventors, designers, makers and engineers. For example, German IoT technician Thomas Endres is refining augmented reality (AR) goggles called Terminator Vision which he presented at last year’s event with co-developer Martin Förtsch.

At this year’s event, Endres showed his progress in reworking the augmented reality vision inspired by the famous Terminator movie cyborg into a setup for AR telepresence. This is also modelled on a sc-ifi movie – Avatar. The actual avatar in this home-made project is not a blue alien body, but a cute Nao robot, and instead of a brain connection, an ordinary Xbox Kinect is used. It seems a promising development for hazardous work in dangerous areas, environments or even other planets.

Back down to Earth, another interesting IoT project was “bikes for air pollution”, which gives accurate measurement and mapping of air pollution. The Belgian project Adem (Dutch for “breath”) is developing small, cheap, robust and accurate clip-on sensors for bicycles to collect and share air quality measurements.

This citizen science project is an initiative by TimeLab in the Belgian city of Gent. It came about because of the lung disease suffered by the son of the company’s founder. But the applicability of Adem is much broader. It ranges from niche applications such as safety zones for lung patients and route planning for joggers, to general usefulness in air quality predictions, traffic management and even city planning.

Adem’s birthplace, Gent, has a large highway crossing the city centre by overpass, but air pollution is not only found in that location. Sometimes dirt particles collect in certain streets, due to factors such as wind, buildings, street width and heat.

Universities and other cities in the Benelux region  are showing an interest in the technology. This particular use of the IoT can help give people fresh air, and although windmills and rain control are an April fool’s prank, the possibilities of the IoT are certainly no joke.

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