Understanding the Internet of Things

This is such a hot topic at the moment! It can get confusing because it involves so many technologies and spans so many vertical sectors. As a telemetry professional, I understand this most simply as taking the signals from sensors and then transmitting them, by various means, to somewhere else, where they can be useful. The signals could be fluid levels in a tank or reservoir, flow readings from a river or industrial process or alarms when something has stopped working, or a threshold has been passed.

My experience began with radio telemetry in the water industry over 20 years ago. Since then technology has evolved at an increasing pace and become more affordable. Remote monitoring of sensors now offers a strong business case in an increasing number of industries, reducing the need for people to physically monitor processes, giving early warning of potential equipment failure and providing real-time data to help with planning, prevention and prediction. Even at the turn of the millennium, I couldn’t have imagined the deployment of over 22,000 telemetry devices into pub cellars to measure the amount of beer being dispensed, or that I would be helping to prevent rail accidents by measuring the temperature of tracks which can buckle at high temperatures.

The terminology has changed – telemetry has become a subset of M2M (Machine2Machine, or Machine2Man, or Man2Machine, depending on what you are doing).  The traditional ways of collecting/ displaying data via SCADA systems is no longer the norm in many sectors and we are seeing ‘cloud’ based systems being the hub of systems like ThingWorx, binding data and creating useable reports. Telemetry traditionally sits between the worlds of instrumentation, IT and telecommunications. Its progress has perhaps been hindered by the need to get representatives of all those fields involved in order to progress a project, but increasingly it is seen as an independent discipline  drawing expertise from all those mentioned above.

Some people think of ‘The Internet of Things’ as a new term for M2M. I don’t agree and I am going to illustrate why with an example involving rainfall, which, coming from Manchester, has impacted heavily on my life, frequently preventing  play in cricket and more recently offering  an excuse not to go cycling….

I’ve had a bit of a brainstorm regarding the various parties who could benefit from knowing that it’s raining in Manchester:-

  • The Environment Agency & local communities want to know so they can take early action in the event of flooding. It may be that insurers would too.
  • The local water authority on both the clean and the dirty water side.
  • On the clean water side it’s an early indicator on the future reservoir level and if it’s heavy rain then in certain areas this could mean more suspended solids in the water increasing the cost to treat the water. It could be beneficial to be treat water from a different region and pump it.
  • On the dirty water side it provides the sewage works with information on the upcoming demand. The sewer network and CSO’s could be used as a holding area allowing the large through put from another region to be attended to first and prevent CSO discharges. This could mean smaller storm tanks are needed at the sewage treatment works, or at least less need to increase the size of storage capacity as populations increase.
  • Farmers can be helped with their irrigation control. If it’s raining to the west and the wind is blowing the weather from there to the farm then don’t switch on the sprinklers just yet, wait and see if the rain comes.
  • The Met office can use the data to compare forecast to actual which in turn will help them become better at forecasting.
  • Building control systems where ventilation is used for temperature control – if the rain is coming then close the windows before it arrives.
  • The traffic network. Heavy rain leads to more accidents so chaos on the roads can be prevented by forewarning drivers about the upcoming conditions and temporary speed limits can be introduced
  • Vehicle forecourts at logistic depots and other places where there are lots of vehicles have interceptor tanks that filter out the oil and brake dust from the water before allowing the water to go to drain or stream. Heavy rainfall can be problematic and leads to forecourts getting flooded or the interceptor being unable to cope, meaning oil can go to drain or stream.
  • Umbrella salespeople know to get out and sell some brollies.
  • Car owners can send a message to their vehicle to tell it to close the sun roof.
  • We can pop out and bring in the washing before the rain comes.

When I consider all the parties who can benefit from information about rain in Manchester, it becomes clear that The Internet Of Things is not merely another term for M2M. Its not just about acquiring data, but about using it effectively. It’s about connecting interested parties, sharing data or selling it.
This could present interesting commercial opportunities and relationships:  Who would instigate and take ownership of the solution? Who would maintain it? Who would be responsible for ensuring the continuity and accuracy of data? What are the security implications and how will business and consumers react to this more open data environment?

At present, the telecommunications providers are very active and have the resource to speculate and invest in the infrastructure. There are great possibilities as these technologies become more widely recognised and their potential is recognised within a broader range of industries. The Internet of Things will continue to be a fascinating area as the world becomes ever more ‘connected’ and information, as always, is power.