What you need to know about the Internet of Things

According to Kevin Ashton, inventor of the term, “the Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to change the world, just as the internet did. Maybe even more so.” It seems we’ve been hearing this buzzword a lot lately. Let’s try to look beyond the hype and attempt to understand where IoT is right now and the promise it holds for the future.

What exactly is IoT?

Before we dig into some use cases, the technology and possible pitfalls, it might be interesting to give a brief description of what the broad — and to be honest quite vague — term IoT actually entails.

There is an increasing amount of machines in the world. These machines can be anything from consumer products like smartphones, cars and toothbrushes to industrial machines like laser cutters, wind turbines and heart rate monitors. Despite being designed for different objectives, these machines have an important thing in common: they are increasingly equipped with a variety of sensors. The most common being the ones in your smartphone. See this article for a full list of smartphone sensors (up to 12!). These sensors are interesting because they produce Data that can be used to get all these machines to work together seamlessly.

Who is doing it?

Smart cities: The city of Antwerp and Iminds (Flanders’ digital research center) are amidst of creating the first large scale testing ground for an Internet of Things environment in Belgium. The project dubbed ‘City of Things’ (CoT) equips the entire city with sensors for measuring air quality, monitoring traffic flow, checking parking spot availability, … The CoT project also provides an open data platform for monitoring life in Antwerp in real time, actively engaging the Antwerp citizens in the creation, testing and optimization of innovative products and services. Watch the videohere.

Smart Living: A number of connected home appliances have been brought to market recently. Most notably Nest, acquired by Google in 2014, offers a smart home thermostat that automatically adjusts temperature to your behavior. After using/training the device for one week, Nest will start noticing patterns in the way you use your thermostat and will start automatically adjusting the temperature in your home. A more general purpose home appliance would be Amazon’s Echo: A speaker powered by Artificial Intelligence that attempts to become the single platform for all your connected devices. You give it commands (as you would Siri for example) like ‘Turn down the lights in the kitchen’ or ‘set Nest thermostat to 20°’ to control all your connected appliances. This isn’t its sole application though, you could just as well ask it to ‘Play Tango music’ in which case it will go through Amazon music and find you a Tango playlist or ‘Buy Plato’s Symposium’ and it will go through Amazon’s bookstore and order a copy to be delivered to your home address. More Smart Home Appliances are being developed every day from smart mouse traps to connected baby monitors.

Healthcare: One area where IoT and Data could potentially save lives is Healthcare. Hospitals are already using sensors to monitor the location of appliances and physicians, Wearables (activity monitors like heart rate monitors) are being deployed to track patient health while not at the hospital and IBM’s Watson, a Technology platform that uses natural language processing and machine learning to reveal insights from large amounts of data, has significantly lowered the chances of getting misdiagnosed for lung cancer by providing doctors with a decision support system that can sift through massive amounts of cancer patient records in seconds and gives a suggestion for optimal treatment based on a patient’s symptoms. IBM announced that it will be investing 3 Billion in an IoT department in the coming years.

Precision Agriculture: IoT provides the Agricultural sector with the tools to automate a range of activities, allowing farmers to produce more with the same resources. Examples include farmers leveraging weather data (from the Weather Company for example) to decide when to harvest crops or self-driving tractors.

Why do we need it?

We live in a society of excess which is, predominantly, a good thing, but the downside is that we are producing a tremendous amount of waste. The main benefit of having so many things connected is the increase in efficiency it can lead to. By consistently measuring and monitoring different types of activity levels, we can derive insights that were not available to us before. In this aspect, IoT has the ability to bring our society forward.

What are the technologies behind it?

Firstly, you need low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs) that support these IoT enabled devices (also called things). Secondly, a Cloud infrastructure is required to accumulate the data that your devices are providing. Thirdly, you need algorithms (e.g. Machine learning) to leverage the data and provide valuable insights. Finally, the right reporting tools (e.g. platforms) to display said insights need to be in place.

Challenges?

Because of the wide variety of data sources (all the different devices), a challenge consists of standardizing all this data in order for data scientists to process it. 80% of data collected by 2019 will be unstructured. Hence, the key to IoT’s success will be the proliferation of techniques that allow specialists to derive valuable insights from unstructured data or techniques that allow them to turn unstructured data into structured data. A second important challenge will be to find the people with the right skill set who can make sense out of all the data. A third challenge will be security. Privacy will become a major issue if security for all these devices, infrastructures and systems is not properly taken care of.

IoT holds great promise for everything from consumer devices, medical implants, connected cars to industrial machines. It will take some time to get the right systems in place and we will inevitably face challenges and experience problems, as we always do with new technology but it is important not to expect these changes to happen overnight, nor to fear them. Like most innovations, smart, connected devices will gradually find their way into our lives and we will embrace them slowly, … but surely.

Lucas Tamboryn
Startup enthousiast, tech junkie and traveller 
Looking for opportunities in New Business Development
Lucas.tamboryn@gmail.com