Realising the benefits of a totally connected world

The internet of things will transform everyday life, from managing airports’ passenger flow to heating buildings and caring for the elderly.

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The internet of things will transform everyday life, from managing airports' passenger flow to heating buildings and caring for the elderly.

The ability to network electronics in a standard way is set to revolutionise intelligent device control. It represents the world defined by the so-called internet of things (IoT), where electronic equipment transmits data into the cloud over the internet using TCP/IP.

As Computer Weekly reported earlier this year, GE is developing a sensor network based on the principals of IoT to monitor turbines constantly in order to reduce downtime.

In the home, internet-based home automation is now possible thanks to low cost computing devices – such as the Raspberry Pi – RF networks and infrared-to-IP interfaces. British Gas’s Connected Home business, for example, sells a £200 internet-connected central heating controller.

IoT scales up to city-wide initiatives. For instance, Xerox Research Centre Europe has developed a system for managing traffic flow in Los Angeles with dynamic pricing at parking meters. The company deployed 7,000 sensors around the city to detect if a parking meter was occupied and adjusted pricing dynamically to ensure 20% of parking spaces were always available.

The IoT is a revolution that promises to change people’s lives, from inside the home to right across society. The reason it will happen is because of the boom in low-cost computing. In fact, Steve Furber, who was the principal designer of the ARM processor, believes IoT will be the next big growth area for ARM.

Guest articles on the internet of things

  • A vision for the internet of things by William Webb, CEO Weightless SIG, President-Elect at the IET.
  • Internet of things book extract: Low-cost trade-off by Adrian McEwen and Hakim Cassimally
  • Smart machines raise challenging questions by Steve Prentice, distinguished analyst, Gartner
  • Driving forward lifestyle innovations by Quocirca analyst Clive Longbottom

Lower costs

David Davies is group head of instrumentation at Elektron Technologies, a manufacturer of smart connectors and instrumentation for monitoring control. The technology it provides can sense the environment in various ways, such as monitoring temperature, pressure, viscosity and geo-positioning. Its systems are used in food preparation.

He says that, in the past, sensors may have connected to a local PC and were controlled using an embedded module.

"At a component level, IoT enables us to use cheaper wireless technology and move things into the cloud," says Davies. Elektron Technologies has built a system using Xively to provide a cloud-based back end, which is being used at Claridges  to monitor food preparation.

He says: “Sensors throw out time series data and Xively provides a place to store this data as well as management and security. Elektron Technologies then builds a web app on top of this infrastructure.

“IoT gives me a way to build systems in a cost-effective and flexible way, using an open set of components that can easily be integrated and connected easily to the back office.”

Internet of things videos

  • Steve Furber discusses how to use one million ARM chips
  • Video: Steve Prentice on the rise of the smart machine
  • Video interview: William Ruh, head of software at GE speaks about sensor networks

Airport flow

Speaking at the Forrester Forum for customer experience professionals in November, Declan Collier, CEO of London City Airport, said he would like to see the airport become the 21st century of the London Docks.His ambition is to make London City Airport the fastest London airport. "We’re within half an hour from the West End. Our 20-15 proposition means that 20 minutes after you arrive at the terminal you will be on a plane and 15 minutes after you land you will be on your way."

London City airport is using the internet of things to enhance the customer’s journey. He says: "We use face recognition to measure the speed of the journey." Technology from Hitachi is used to count pixels to measure people’s movement in the airport.

For instance, he says the system is being used to optimise the arrivals process. "We built systems to measure the journey through the airport and see, in real time, how passenger flow is working in the baggage hall." This information feeds back into central control and planning to make the process better. He says: "It helps us to prioritise our investment."

Along with the customer experience, there are other benefits, he says: "IoT will allow us to track our assets. We can turn an aircraft in 30 minutes. Having the right equipment at the right place makes a difference and keeps us more punctual. We could track bags, trollies and cars in the future."

The airport has also integrated data from Transport for London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR), which means it can tell how well the DLR is running and how long it will take for a passenger to get to the gate.

Getting to know customers

Many companies are developing internet connected intelligence into their products. At the FT Innovate conference in London last month, Nancy Quan, global research and development officer at Coca-Cola, spoke about how the company’s drinks machines provide an interactive display, allowing consumers to customise drinks. The information collected from these units allows Coca-Cola to understand customers’ tastes better.

If we give machines responsibility for their own actions, can they expect rights?

Steve Prentice, Gartner

Much of the really exciting work is being done by startups. Alex van Someren is a managing partner at Amadeus Capital Partners. He says the venture capital company is interested in IoT and has invested in early stage companies to help them build products. Along with hardware for machine-to-machine and connected home technologies, he says: "The second layer of IoT products is the software that analyses data flows from sensors. For instance, a building sensor will generate big data that can create a lot of value." Such data could be extracted to optimise heating and lighting in a building controlled via an IoT-based sensor network.

Another area of interest for van Someren is the development of low powered computing, where processors can run indefinitely with very low power consumption. For instance, piezo electric devices can generate electricity from vibrations.

William Webb, board member at Cambridge Wireless and president-elect at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), says connected devices on the IoT will make the world a better place. "Some of the key societal problems – such as assisted living – will be ameliorated through sensors in the home and on the person."

Whatever the future holds for the internet of things, intelligent devices will become intertwined into people’s lives. Gartner fellow Steve Prentice warns of the moral implications were such devices to take on routine tasks that would traditionally be carried out by humans.

Prentice says: "Smart machines are close to outsmarting the humans – whether driving a car or determining a medical diagnosis – leaving the human overseer with the responsibility but reduced capability. But, if we take the major step of changing the legal systems to give machines the responsibility for their own actions, can they also expect rights?"

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