The Internet of Things

Connecting the world via computers in our pockets, networks in the cloud and sensors in the environment
Dan Marsula The Internet of Things
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We carry our smartphones everywhere, and they connect us to everything. We feel comfortable talking to them and having them talk back. We call them phones, but they’re pocket computers, as powerful as the supercomputers of a decade ago. We use them as calculators, cameras, memory aids, executive assistants, voice recorders, word processors, road maps, activity monitors, and innumerable other functions performed by the million-​plus apps chasing us around cyberspace looking for friendly homes in our “phones.”

As smart as our smartphones are, a new development called the Internet of Things is about to boost their IQs. The key to the Internet of Things is ubiquity. Ubiquitous computing in the smart phones we carry everywhere. Ubiquitous connectivity in the networks that connect us to everything we need to know wherever we may be. Ubiquitous storage in what has come to be known as “the cloud.” And coming soon, ubiquitous sensing as billions of wireless sensors are deployed in our homes, cars, trucks, workplaces, factories, bridges, highways, tunnels, forests, farms — even our bodies.

In its simplest form, the Internet of Things collects information about distant events, stores the information as data, and makes it available to our phones. The ability to install sensors in remote places effectively expands the reach of the Internet to encompass virtually every place on earth.

The Internet of Things augments the power of the Internet by adding three technologies: Sensors that acquire data about events in the environment; wireless data transmission that sends that data to a computer for processing or storage; and data analytics that transforms raw data into useful information.

With its far-​flung sensors, the Internet of Things will detect events we wouldn’t normally notice and wirelessly transmit that information to computers where the data can be analyzed and fed back to us for action. The undertaking will be massive, but experts expect it to happen naturally as a result of the inherent benefits of efficiency and performance it promises to bring to just about everything we do.

Talking Trolley Tracks

One example is a collaboration between Carnegie Mellon University and the Allegheny County Port Authority’s light rail system. In order to monitor the condition of the system’s tracks, motion sensors on rail cars record vibrations as the wheels roll over the rails. When the car goes in for service, vibration data is downloaded and compared with previous data.

By themselves, the clicks and clacks would be meaningless — all rail cars vibrate when they cross track joints. But when thousands of vibrations at the same GPS location are recorded over time and sent to a central computer for analysis, the changes in vibration patterns can target places that need inspection before they become major economic or safety problems.

Because the principle of machines (sensors) communicating with other machines (computers), is applicable to virtually any physical system, the Internet of Things has provoked intense interest from virtually every sector of commerce and industry — home security, manufacturing, energy efficiency, agriculture, body sensing apparel and surgical implants.

Initially, the idea of machines talking to each other might sound like science fiction, but it’s actually the central idea upon which the Internet was built in the first place. Over 40 years ago, a computer program called the Internet Protocol, or IP, freed computers from their functional isolation. The Internet Protocol enabled computers to swap data over local cables and long-​distance telephone wires. Together, the data-​swapping computers connected by data-​carrying wires became the Internet.

From Wires to Waves

For all its convenience, the Internet dramatically increased network costs by spurring the need for endless spools of wire and cable. It also restricted placement of network devices to locations close to existing wires. Fortunately, a century earlier the University of Pittsburgh’s first chairman of electrical engineering, Reginald Fessenden, had solved both problems with his invention of AM radio, the first broadcast of which took place between Downtown Pittsburgh and the North Side.

A hundred years later, when Internet users began connecting computers, printers and cell phones in their homes and businesses, Fessenden’s wireless radio waves provided the convenience of connectivity anywhere without the inconvenience of running wires everywhere. As increasing numbers of users came to the Internet, an array of short-​distance wireless interfaces such as wifi, Bluetooth, cellular networks and RFID tags connected “wireless” home computers and professional workstations to the hardwired backbone of the Internet.

Today, a hybrid mesh of short– and long-​distance data transmission pathways work in concert to exchange the data of our lives seamlessly, over wires, cables and waves, as we converse with our friends by voice and text, check the weather on the web, get directions from the cloud, adjust the thermostat in the hallway, count our footsteps as we walk and read our email over coffee — all from our smartphones.

Wireless technology didn’t eliminate wires and cables. But it freed devices at the edges of the network from the tethers that had previously bound them to it. And that liberation propelled network computing into overdrive by extending connectivity from anyplace near a network cable to anywhere in the world.

Making Data Make Sense

While networks were getting bigger, stronger and more flexible, sensors were getting smaller, smarter and cheaper. Today, sensors can transform just about any physical event into an electrical signal. Light, sound, heat, pressure, motion, moisture, electrical currents, chemicals, magnetism, radiation — anything that changes in any way, no matter how slightly — can be detected and converted into the digital zeroes and ones that computers thrive on.

Today sensors can transform just about any physical event into an electrical signal.

The final piece of the Internet of Things puzzle is data analytics, the software programs that make sense of the data that sensors collect. Data analytics sorts through oceans of data to make meaningful correlations between obscure data points and to draw conclusions that would take mere humans eternities to calculate. As futuristic as the Internet of Things appears to be, it’s not idle speculation. Fitness trackers connect human bodies to smart phones and web sites. Learning thermostats connect the smart phone in your car with the furnace in your basement. But this is just the beginning of a new form of network communication that will be headed our way when sensors begin to communicate between unrelated devices.

Experts on the Internet of Things predict tsunamis of col laborative innovation as industries recognize the potential of joining forces with other industries, presumed to be unrelated, but with whom new value can be created for consumers, without creating new products.

Better for Our Bodies

For instance, putting together all those fitness trackers and learning thermostats, it’s not hard to imagine the incongruous pair adding value they couldn’t offer alone. Since both devices track temperature — fitness trackers, body temperature — thermostats, room temperature — having them talk to each other can ensure a comfortable environment for the occupants of a room. Since both devices are typical ly fitted with Bluetooth capability, they are equipped to engage in a machine-​to-​machine conversation about matching bedroom temperature with the sleeping occupant’s optimal body temperature.

So, when your body temperature drops by a few tenths of a degree and you wake up tossing and turning, the fitness tracker on your wrist sends those data points to your smart phone via Bluetooth. The smart phone correlates decreases in body temperature with waking up and signals the thermostat to fire up the furnace. Before you roll back over, the thermostat has kicked on its burner and learned your new preferred bedroom temperature for three o’clock in the morning. And you get a good night’s sleep for a long time to come.

For an aging population, the Internet of Things can give seniors greater independence and a higher quality of life by allowing remote caregivers to monitor activity without intruding upon personal privacy. Data from pressure sensors on beds and chairs can gauge physical activity. Motion sensors on refrigerator and cupboard doors can ensure that an elderly person is eating three meals a day.

In health care, the Internet of Things offers promise for continuing care at home a s well as improved practices and procedures in clinical settings. For instance, today Bluetooth-​enabled blood pressure, blood sugar and heart rate monitors can transmit essential health information to smart phones. The continuously stored data gives individuals and their health care providers access to information about their bodies under normal living conditions that would not be available in an office or clinic.

For patients on medications requiring careful dosa ge administration, engineers and pharmacologists at the University of Pittsburgh have developed an RFID –tagged blister pack that notes the date and time of pill removal. RFID tags are very small arrays of antennas that return a unique radio signal when activated by a specific type of radio wave.

In operating rooms, the Internet of Things is beginning to impact surgical practices and procedures, including joint replacements. For instance, a collaboration between electrical engineers at the University of Pittsburgh and medical researchers at UPMC has resulted in implantable RFID tags for hip and knee replacements. The tags are programmed with patient information and prosthesis manufacturing data so that surgeons performing subsequent surgeries can easily access the information that is very important but frequently absent or difficult to get.

Affecting Industry and Transportation

Ubiquitous sensing and data analytics can monitor production output and quality control, track orders, keep realtime inventories, predict raw materials requirements, and integrate with marketing and finance to improve business performance.

Integ Process Group of Gibsonia produces a control system for multiscreen movie complexes that gathers and transmits data from a theater’s automated presentation systems, giving managers the ability to control projectors, sound systems, house lights, presentation schedules and public safety systems for up to 24 auditoriums from a smart phone, anywhere in the world.

Leveraging its expertise in data analytics, the company has developed a software system for continuously monitoring the efficiency of manufacturing processes. The system collects and analyzes four production signals that it compiles and correlates to generate up to 27 indicators of overall equipment effectiveness. The data can then be displayed as password-​protected charts viewable by production workers on a manufacturing floor as well as managers anywhere in the world.

Taking the Internet of Things on the road, a collaborative project between the City of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University’s Traffic 21 Institute has reduced traffic congestion on Penn Avenue in East Liberty. The experimental project employs optical sensors to count cars as they approach traffic signals. Each signal sends its vehicle-​count data to other signals within an area of several blocks to coordinate traffic flow data with each light’s red-​amber-​green timing cycle. Machine-​to-​machine communication between the signals keeps intersections as fuel-​efficient and stress-​free as possible. So far, the system has reduced traffic signal wait-​time by about 40 percent.

No Small Numbers

The fact that the Internet of Things is in its infancy makes predicting how it will play out virtually impossible. Estimates of world sensor counts vary widely from between 5 billion and 10 billion functioning sensors today with projections of 50 billion to 100 billion five years from now. Sales projections for systems, devices and services range from a few trillion dollars to tens of trillions by 2020. The spreads are so wide, the estimates defy credence. All the same, nobody’s talking about numbers smaller than 10 digits, which gives reason to take very seriously the likelihood that the Internet of Things will succeed.

Speculative predictions aside, one fact that everybody seems to agree on is that demand for new IP addresses created by the Internet of Things will quickly outstrip the maximum 4.3 billion available with the current IP addressing system instituted in 1974. Since then, world population has increased to 7 billion, a third of which is connected to the Internet. To complicate matters, new people and devices are joining the party every day.

Fortunately, a new version of the Internet Protocol is sitting on the bench, waiting to be called into the game. It has the capacity to provide an incomprehensibly large number of IP addresses. To be precise, the number is 6.65 x 1023 — that comes out to 39 digits and 12 commas. That number is beyond the grasp of normal human intelligence other than to say it’s large enough to give every particle of sand on earth its own IP address. So we should be good for a long time to come.

In a market that is concerned about security, the most secure products will be the most successful ones.”
—Jeffery Donne

But even with the addressing system out of the way, a couple of stubborn, if not insurmountable, obstacles remain. Jeffrey Donne, former head of Bosch’s Pittsburgh research center, points out two of them: interoperability and security.

The problem of interoperability involves making sure Internet of Things devices work together. Given potential conflicts between currently installed devices and the billions of new ones expected over the next five years, the specter of incompatibility looms large. The most facile way of resolving the interoperability problem will be for device manufacturers to collaborate in the development of a super-​friendly, plug and play, platformagnostic, inter-​device connection and communication system.

On the security side, the Internet of Things faces the inescapable reality that more devices equal more points of entry, which mean more opportunities for security breaches. Bosch’s Donne said solving the security dilemma is a driving force for innovation in the field. “In a market that is concerned about security, the most secure products will be the most successful ones.”

Beyond the soft questions of interoperability and security, the most stubborn question for ubiquitous sensing remains supplying power to sensors in remote locations. The current options for continuously powering remote sensors are limited to two equally impractical options: Either throw away a sensor once its electrical charge is depleted or change billions of batteries in outof– the-​way places.

The University of Pittsburgh’s late Professor Marlin Mickle (who died a few days after giving an interview for this story) and colleagues have taken a two-​pronged approach to the remote power problem: Find a novel source of remote electricity and/​or develop novel sensors with lower power requirements.

On the power source side of the problem, Mickle and colleagues have developed a method of harvesting radio waves from the air and converting them into electricity wherever they are gathered. However, due to the limited energy available from these stray radio waves, they also are working toward reducing power consumed by remote sensors with a novel set of operating instructions written specifically for low power devices.

The challenges are formidable, but the potential of the Internet of Things is great. Now that machines can gather information and talk to each other, the question becomes where to put them. The list of possibilities is long: smart cities, smart infrastructure, smart environment, intelligent buildings, smart manufacturing, clean water, home automation, smart energy, electronic health care, smart farms, autonomous vehicles… It’s hard to know where to stop.

But now that we have the Internet of Things, maybe the machines can figure it out. When they do, our smartphones will let us know.

Tom Imerito

Tom Imerito is president of Science Communications, a Pittsburgh technology communications consultancy.

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