Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine Devices Will Soon Power the World
The terms internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine (M2M) refer to the remote access of a wide array of devices, ranging from motion sensors that trigger a light when someone walks past them, to a fully automated heating system in a household that adjusts its temperature based on factors such as the outdoor climate and whether a person is in the room or not. The differences between the two technologies lie in how the way in which they achieve remote-device connection. IoT solutions rely on IP-based networks to send data to the Internet. This data can then be stored in a cloud platform and accessed by multiple people. M2M, on the other hand, occurs when devices communicate with each other through embedded hardware modules and either cellular or wired networks. An example would be a temperature sensor sending temperature readings to a single computer.
Over the next few years, people all over the world will have their lives drastically changed by the ever-increasing presence of IoT and M2M connected devices. These cutting-edge technologies will make our lives easier and more efficient, introducing cost-cutting measures that could boost the economy and reduce pollution. Already, the industry is growing at an annual rate of 25-30% and cellular M2M connections alone are forecasted to reach 1 billion by 2020.
Figure 1: An illustration showing many different devices that are interconnected through the cloud.
The interpretation of data in M2M connections happens on a local level for a specific situation, such as the turning on of a light when the motion sensor is activated. This specific process involves harnessing limited data, in the form of nearby movement, and reaching a simple conclusion for whether to turn the light on or not. Another similar (but more convoluted) example could be a household’s central heating system. By placing motion sensors in different rooms, the central heating system would be able to heat specific rooms based on the movement of the occupant, while keeping unoccupied rooms at a lower temperature, thus saving energy. A third example might be a resident’s personal alarm that triggers the water heating system to start producing hot water so that, by the time the person is ready to shower, the water is nice and warm.
The superiority of IoT devices lies in the fact that each piece of local data can be aggregated and sent to an IoT platform. These are cloud-based systems that give an individual or a firm the chance to bring all the data into one place and analyze it. There has already been an explosion in the use of cloud computing services, increasing 79% in the past year, and this growth will only continue as more IoT devices generate data. A central advantage of a cloud-based system is that it’s accessible anywhere and is always connected. What is being addressed is no longer situation-specific, but can be useful in a wider context. It also allows for greater processing power due to the improved computing capacity of a supercomputer, thus increasing the intelligence of the system. For example, IoT devices could be used in changing traffic-signal lengths at different times of the day, according to the direction of rush-hour traffic. This would ease congestion and reduce the amount of pollution produced by cars.
Figure 2: A figure showing the vast potential applications of just one domain of IoT devices: the wearables. Picture courtesy of Beecham Research.
Challenges and Solutions
Although the growth potential is huge, there are two key challenges that must be overcome before the solutions offered by these technologies can be launched on a wider scale. The first and most important one is the issue of security. M2M security challenges are confined to specific situations, thus affecting a limited amount of people. However, an IoT security breach could hit a wide area, especially if multiple devices are connected in a complicated network. A security failure such as this could affect millions of people and bring an entire community to a halt. Although fiction, this scenario was well illustrated in the movie Die Hard 4: in one scene, all the traffic lights are hacked so that they stay green, causing multiple accidents and bringing traffic to a standstill. Another example of a mass failure in the near future might occur with IoT devices that control various settings of a household. If hackers gain control over the centralized system that (for example) sets the lighting or the time at which a kettle is turned on in millions of households, there could be widespread disruptions.
Government policies represent one way of managing security issues. The UK government actively encourages responsible IoT development. The IoT Security Foundation, a government initiative, was founded in 2015 to deal with security issues that might arise, with aims to prevent and combat them. This approach, coupled with the sharing of information on how to secure IoT connections between major players, could hold the key to avoiding cataclysmic consequences.
A second challenge, however, is in the integration of machine data with IT. A large amount of processing will be required to to make use of the vast amount of data coming from billions of devices. By 2020, it’s predicted that the amount of online data will be 44 times greater than it was in 2009. This will pose significant challenges in terms of storage, analysis, and usage, along with the common security issues posed when storing data in cloud platforms.
This problem will hopefully be overcome due to the ever-increasing processing power of computers, which has been roughly doubling every two years for the past 40 years. The faster the processors, the better they will cope with the rapidly increasing amount of data available. Another possible way to surpass this issue is by improving the algorithms that analyze the data.
If these challenges are overcome, billions of interconnected devices could be used to power various parts of our lives. For example, in farming, driverless trucks would harvest fields and maintain agricultural crops. This advancement, known as smart farming, has fewer liabilities and restrictive regulation compared to driverless car initiatives. This is because these trucks are on private land and far from people and other road users. In the industrial sector we would have smart factories. We already have a high degree of automation with robots replacing humans on the production line and this is likely to increase as technology advancements reduce the need of humans further.
In the service sector, households and entire cities could operate in a smart way, improving living standards. Households could make use of features that improve the efficiency of central heating systems, and cities could improve on commuting times as well as the way in which resources (like water) are used. The PlanIT Urban Operating System™ is one example of an entrepreneurial development aimed at creating smart cities. They are looking at innovative ways of increasing the efficiency of the overall urban infrastructure by combining data from sensors, devices, and people. This system is already being trialed in Copenhagen and other cities are expected to follow suit.
IoT devices are forecast to penetrate every aspect of our lives in the near future, ranging from food production to our travel to work, from our households’ heating systems to the functioning of our cities. By 2020, there will be 34 billion devices connected to the Internet, 24 billion of which will be IoT devices. In 2015, the total number of devices was 10 billion, which included ‘traditional’ devices such as computers and smartphones. $6 trillion is expected to be spent on IoT development over the next 5 years, unlocking the vast potential of IoT devices in day-to-day life.
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