What is the Internet of Things?
You’ve probably heard the term before now, but many people are still unclear about what it actually refers to. Perhaps a clearer – though undoubtedly less catchy – name for what we’re talking about here would be the Internet of Objects. You see, the IoT refers to any one of the billions of objects – smart lights, thermostats, fridges, cars, etc. – which are connected to the internet, though not (necessarily) used for actual web browsing.
Because we live in an age where sensors and other computer components can be produced cheaply and in smaller sizes than ever before, almost any conceivable object could theoretically become part of the IoT – from a tiny pill to an entire building. These devices can collect and share data, communicate with other devices in their network and beyond, and elegantly bring digital and physical worlds together like never before.
IoT devices are generally considered to be those which, in the past, wouldn’t normally be internet-connected. PCs and smartphones are examples of devices which are NOT IoT – even though they use similar technology. IoT devices usually communicate with their networks independent of human interaction – such as heating systems that adjust temperature themselves, driverless vehicles (including flying ones like drones), and smart locks and alarm systems that fire into action as soon you leave the house or office. Though capable of working autonomously, these things can often also be controlled remotely thanks to their internet connection – usually via smartphone app.
The potential and scope for IoT devices is vast, but before looking to the future, let’s take a brief dip into the past.
While the technology to make it possible wouldn’t be available for many years, the idea of using sensors and computer components to make everyday objects more intelligent was discussed throughout the revolutionary 1980s and 90s.
The processors of the age were simply too expensive to produce and consumed too much power to make their mass rollout cost-effective enough to be seriously considered.
One of the earliest developments which paved the way for the IoT as we understand it today was the introduction of RFID chips. These chips use radio frequency to wirelessly communicate with companion devices – and use little power while doing so. They are still widely used today, mainly in inventory management where products with the chips installed can be quickly and automatically counted for stocktaking purposes.
Advances in internet and mobile technology further moved us towards an IoT world, as did IPv6 adoption – necessary for the nearly limitless number of individual IP addresses a world of connected devices requires.
The term Internet of Things was first coined by Kevin Ashton way back in 1999, who saw a future where connectivity would grant computers eyes and ears.
“In the twentieth century, computers were brains without senses – they only knew what we told them,” said Ashton in a Smithsonian Magazine interview. “That was a huge limitation: there is many billion times more information in the world than people could possibly type in through a keyboard or scan with a barcode. In the twenty-first century, because of the Internet of Things, computers can sense things for themselves.”
Estimates vary, but today there are thought to be more IoT devices than there are people in the world. By the end of 2018, there were around ten billion connected devices globally with over 127 new ones connecting to the internet every second. Conservative estimates see the number of IoT devices in circulation hitting 22 billion by 2025, and the market having the potential to generate four to eleven trillion dollars in economic value.
Connected technology is finding its way into industry all over the world, and it’s thought that enterprise applications of IoT will drive much of the predicted value which will be derived from it.
The security sector is using IoT to deliver more consistent and improved services to its clients.
Connected alarm systems and CCTV networks can constantly communicate with the security service providers using them. This means they can be remotely monitored 24/7, reducing the number of manual patrols which need to be carried out. Connected alarm systems and CCTV can be set to automatically contact the relevant services in the event of an emergency, removing a step in the process of getting help.
Smart keys and locks can be installed which can be unlocked using a smartphone app or similar companion device. This removes the need for a physical key, and it becomes a matter of simplicity to revoke permissions should a member of staff leave the security firm – with no concern that keys may not be returned, or copies having been made.
We already briefly discussed how RFID sensors can be used to streamline the process of taking inventory, but IoT technology is able to benefit the retail industry even beyond this application.
Automated checkout is becoming more and more popular, thanks in large part to Amazon Go. Sensors installed in product packaging can automatically add items to a digital basket on the customer’s smartphone as they are removed from the shelf and their card is automatically charged when they leave the store.
Sensors placed around the store can also deliver personalised recommendations and discounts to customers as they browse the aisles. These recommendations can leverage the power of data to know what products people have been looking at online and use that information to make the discounts even more salient.
Smart shelving can detect when stocks are running low and send a notification to store associates to refill products. Digital labels can dynamically update pricing and provide customers with other key product information.
Connected sensors installed in industrial machinery can constantly monitor the condition of its components. This means developing faults can be identified at a very early stage and engineers can be alerted to attend. Issues can then be addressed before they cause large scale shutdowns – saving clients time, money, and productivity.
Engineers can also arrive on site armed with all the information they need about a fault. Traditionally, engineers would have to visit a reported fault to diagnose the issue and then leave to get the right parts and tools for the repair, before returning once again to complete the job.
One of the main concerns around IoT devices involve data security. With these devices gathering and processing huge amounts of data, the need for robust security systems is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, especially in the consumer market, many IoT devices and their companion apps are not taking their responsibilities in this regard seriously.
That said, the IoT is changing the world, enabling companies to provide their customers with more consistent and streamlined services and empowering them with exciting technology and new experiences.
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