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Looking in little places for the value in the internet of things

Delivering business value from the promise of highly networked sensor devices is harder than it first appears – and lessons can be learned in unexpected places

There has been plenty of hype in recent years about the internet of things (IoT) – smart cities, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and so on. It all sounds very exciting and fulfils dreams stimulated by sci-fi blockbusters, but the complexity of interconnected value chains, coupled with the expensive infrastructure that is often required, means that deployment at scale still needs to answer one important question – where is value actually being achieved?

The example of airlines that still mislay about 25 million bags a year, despite investments and improvements in tracking technology, indicates that there might be mundane use cases where more could be done. Only in 2019 did the International Air Transport Association (IATA) vote to support the implementation of RFID tags throughout the industry. Even after the necessary investment required in supporting systems and equipment, this could save the industry more than $3bn, and improve the experience for tens of millions of customers each year.

Opportunities like this seem obvious – so why are they not addressed?

Some may require the involvement of too many participants in a complex ecosystem and with so many business agendas that they become too hard to implement commercially, despite the technology being readily available. This is a frequent IoT problem.

The technology is shrinking and is capable of spreading widely to different things with intertwined connectivity, but the implementation process can be expensive and slow to deliver results. Solutions might appear feasible in prototype or proof of concept, but there is a fear that they may be ultimately unwieldy and unachievable to deploy or manage at scale.

Simpler connected technologies

Another issue is overselling the technology. Some problems do not warrant highly “smart” things, but a mass of simpler connected technologies. This means scale is an IoT issue not only at the high end of numbers of “things”, but also, and perhaps more so, at this low end of tiny tech. The two go hand in hand with big volumes of small things required to deliver value. 

While many in the telecoms industry will tout bigger and better capacity networks – 5G being the latest example – the reality is that many smaller things will not be able to use these powerful networks directly. To address this challenge, traditional IT providers, both in hardware and software, have been looking to offer an intelligent edge.

Smart gateways can provide mechanisms to support tiny devices through aggregation and abstraction. This can simplify the connectivity to a slew of tiny devices close together and might add value for management and distributed analysis. But this will not fix all problems, especially where highly remote or widely distributed micro-device connectivity is required.

Other forms of networking need to be considered and, as some of the challenges with roll-outs in smart metering have revealed, networking to these odd little places – such as under stairs and inaccessible locations behind buildings – is not always easy. Low-power, low-bandwidth wide area networking may be necessary, or at least more cost-effective, to reach the remote places where dumb sensors, rather than super-smart things, need to be deployed.

Tiny devices

Tiny devices with sensors have particular quirks and demands. In an odd way, people approaching the end of their career may understand these peculiarities better than the digital natives born into a world of almost unlimited compute power, massive memory and high-speed connectivity. The constraints, in modern tech terms, will seem onerous and challenging – minimal memory and processing power but, perhaps more critically, limited electrical power.

Typically, tiny devices will not only have small batteries but, vitally, it may be prohibitively costly to replace them. The cost of sending a person to a remote device could far outweigh the incremental business value returned.

This is where the use of low-impact technologies becomes vital. Low-power wide area networks for minimal electrical consumption devices, communicating with lightweight protocols such as MQTT, have an increasingly important part to play in huge deployments of tiny devices. Batteries last longer, allowing devices to remain connected without costly or complex edge technology, or regular field maintenance.

In this way, high numbers of feeds of tiny amounts of data can combine to deliver intelligence, insight and, ultimately, significant value.

Read more about the internet of things

With the industry excitement focusing on the latest technology innovations such as 5G, business value risks being missed. Networks deliver value because of their size in terms of numbers of connections, not pure bandwidth. The IoT is no exception and a lot of value can be unearthed from a better understanding of many little things.

Effective deployment at scale is still a challenge because most of the costs will come from logistics, rather than technology itself. So, rather than filling IoT teams solely with IT and comms expertise, consider bringing in logistical experts from day one. It might not seem glamorous, but the value in IoT is all about managing scale and cost – something that the logistics sector has long understood.

Digital transformation enabled by IoT might be all about moving “bits” rather than “atoms”, but given the extreme scale involved, this needs to be highly efficient to deliver the expected value at scale. Time to invest in specific skills, people and processes that know how to sweat the small stuff.

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)

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