There have been a lot of discussions online regarding the Internet of Things (IoT), which is not surprising. As a technology, IoT has the potential to completely transform the way we live and do things. It’s already been making inroads into our lives on several fronts, ranging from our day-to-day activities to large-scale industrial work.
As per a Gartner forecast, there will be over 20 billion IoT-devices by 2020.
So, it’s safe to say that IoT is the Next Big Thing in all spheres of life. However, some people are still not fully sure what IoT is and what it means for their daily lives or business.
If you’re also looking to learn more about what IoT is and what it means for you, you’ve come to the right place.
In our ‘Guide to the Internet of Things’, we’re going to cover everything. Read on to learn what IoT is and how it can be used in your day-to-day life, and even in your business!
While we may not cover each topic in detail, this guide should serve as a great starting point for understanding this technology and how you can make the most of it.
To put it in simple, non-technical terms: implementing IoT means connecting your everyday objects to the internet. In other words, an IoT system is one comprised of various physical devices which are connected over a network and communicate with each other.
In IoT terms, any ordinary object can become a ‘thing’, be it your lights, washing machines, Fitbits, printers, and even your showers. (This is why it is often called the Internet of Everything or IoE.) All that is needed is for these objects to be capable of one of the following:
- Collecting and sending information,
- Receiving and acting upon information, or
- Both of the above
Each of these capabilities can provide several benefits.
For example, IoT sensors could be used to check the conditions at an oil well and warn the workers in case there is some danger to the well.
In an IoT connected Smart House, you could turn on your water heater (geyser) using your mobile phone when leaving your gym or office. This way you can quickly get in the shower the moment you reach home.
You could also use IoT sensors to see if you’ve left an appliance on and remotely turn it off through your phone.
But before we dive into the applications of IoT, let us understand how it works.
To create an IoT system you need the following:
1. Sensors: Sensors collect information from their environment. These sensors could be standalone objects or a part of a device that carries out other work. A fish tank water temperature sensor would be an example of the former. A GPS-tracker on an automatic vacuum cleaner would be an example of the latter.
2. Connectivity: For these sensors and devices to communicate, they need to be connected to the internet/the IoT network. This can be done through a variety of methods such as cellular connections, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. These connections allow the sensors/devices to send and receive data and instructions.
3. Processing: The information collected by the sensors needs to be processed and analyzed to allow users (or the devices) to take action. This processing is usually done in the cloud. In the case of fish tank temperature sensors, the data received will be processed to see if the water temperature is within the desired range.
4. User Interface (UI): This information, once processed, needs to be shared with the user in some way. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as by sending notifications to their phones/emails, triggering alarms, etc. UIs can also allow the user to actively monitor their network and initiate actions. In the fish tank example, the user can constantly monitor the temperature of the tank through an app. If the temperature falls too low, the user can adjust a heater to warm the water.
In some cases, actions can also be triggered without any human intervention. For example, on a factory line using IoT sensors to track machine health, the system can be programmed to instantly shut down a machine which is in danger of failing. This is done through connected actuators (devices that convert electrical signals into some output/action).
In short: sensors collect information and send this over the internet to a data processor. The processor analyzes the data and sends it to the user. The user then decides what action needs to be taken. This information is sent to the actuators which make changes as per the user’s instructions.
In case of an automated system, the processor itself sends instructions to the actuators.
Due to the way it operates, IoT offers several advantages to people and businesses. Let’s explore a few of these.
Some of the major advantages of using IoT are:
Better communication: IoT allows devices to talk to each other, thus allowing direct machine-to-machine communication. This reduces inefficiencies and time taken in transferring data from one device to another. It also enables another key benefit: easy automation of complex tasks.
Higher volume and quality of data: IoT sensors can be used to gather information at a very granular level, in real-time. As the sensors communicate directly with the processors/the cloud, there are fewer chances of errors in the readings. This means users will have access to a large quantity of good quality data which can be used to improve and optimize their activities.
Automation: By allowing devices to talk to each other, IoT opens the doors to the automation of several kinds of tasks. Systems can be programmed to automatically initiate certain actions based on the information received from the sensors. A few examples:
- A factory system that adjusts workloads and shuts down machines basis the output required and the health of the machine
- A parking-finder tool which connects a car’s navigation system to the city’s parking sensors, allowing users to easily find and navigate to an open parking slot. If combined with self-driving car technology, this could completely automate car travel as the car would be able to automatically park itself after dropping the passengers.
Tracking/Monitoring: IoT sensors can help track the location of inventory or equipment in real-time. They can also be used to actively monitor environmental conditions, a patient’s health condition, a machine’s health, and more.
Time and cost savings: Automating tasks will help save time, reduce inefficiencies, and improve the overall effectiveness of various processes. All of this could result in cost savings for a business. On a personal front, IoT devices can help you save on electricity costs by tracking your usage and making suggestions on how to save energy (Google’s Nest Thermostat). They can also save you time by allowing you to do several tasks you used to manually using just your phone. For example, you can turn on the lights, switching on/off the geyser, change the room temperature, etc.
Due to the versatile nature of IoT technology, it finds applications in many areas. These applications can broadly be classified as either customer based IoT (Google Nest thermostats, Nike HyperAdapt shoes, Philips Hue smart lights) and Enterprise/Industrial IoT (Airbus’ Factory of the Future).
Here are some current and potential applications of IoT:
Wearable fitness devices (like the Fitbit) can be used to track an individual’s heart rate, blood pressure, and more. These devices are already being used to track a person’s daily exercise. They can also be used to remind users to take medicines, complete exercises or even warn them if their bodies need rest. In case an individual requires immediate medical attention, these devices can be used to instantly alert the nearest emergency services.
This will allow both users and their doctors to actively track their health. Doctors will be able to see if the patient is sticking to their treatment plan and identify any patient in need of immediate assistance.
IoT sensors embedded in medical devices can also be used to send information on a patient’s condition and treatment to the healthcare payers (insurers). This can help in the claims process by providing more transparency.
Smarter urban transportation
In an IoT-enabled transportation system, each public transport vehicle will carry a GPS tracker and will be connected to a central system. Traffic lights, bus stops, subway stations, etc. can all be connected to the system to track the number of passengers/cars waiting or in-transit at a particular location. This information can then be used to reroute buses, control the traffic lights and more.
People using the transportation network can be connected to it through apps. These apps can alert them when a bus/train is arriving, show them the time until the next bus arrives, suggest travel routes and more.
This can also be extended to cover parking lots in the city as described in the parking finder example above.
Connecting everyday devices to the cloud could make the ‘smart homes’ from science fiction a reality. From controlling the lights and appliances to automating your laundry, and maybe even the cooking of simple dishes, IoT can do all of this and more.
Currently, we already have smart lighting solutions in the form of Philips Hue, smart thermostats such as Google Nest, smart security systems, and many other such solutions. Who knows, in time, a Jetsons’ like house where your household system launches you into the shower and gets you ready for work automatically may become a reality!
IoT can also be used to enhance production efficiency and reduce costs at factories. IoT sensors can track the condition of a machine and alert users if the machine is in danger of breaking down. Production lines can also be connected to a smart central processor which can control the workload assigned to each line to ensure the highest efficiency.
IoT can also be used to check for safety at the workplace and alert the workers in case there is an impending emergency. This can be done through the use of air quality monitors, temperature sensors, and other such devices.
Learn more about the applications of IoT in manufacturing.
IoT enabled tracking devices can also be used in a variety of supply chain related tasks. Warehouses can use IoT to track inventory. Factories can use it to track equipment. Logistics companies can use it to track the movement of shipments and vehicles.
All in all, IoT will increase transparency in the supply chain. It could also automate the order fulfilment process by using connected drones to locate, pack and ship items from the warehouse.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The energy and utility industry is looking at using IoT to create Smart Grids that automatically balance supply and demand. Smart Dust (IoT computers, smaller than a grain of sand) can be sprayed over an area to monitor air quality, soil conditions, etc. Alternatively, it could be injected into the human body to identify problems inside the body.
Several startups are looking into applications for IoT in the music industry as well. Applications range from smart speakers that change music depending on the user’s mood to tools to help amateur musicians learn to play songs.
The applications of this technology are limited only by human imagination.
No new technology is without its own set of risks and challenges, and IoT is no different. With the increase in the volume and variety of data being shared, from live locations to heart rate information, several concerns arise.
1. Privacy: From real-time information about a person’s location to their medical information, IoT devices can collect a vast variety of data. As more and more detailed data about an individual gets shared over the internet, it falls to the device manufacturers and those to whom this data is sent to ensure the privacy of user data.
From risks of theft to the selling of information to third-parties, several dangers need to be addressed. Some, such as maintaining user privacy, can be done with the help of blockchain technology.
Additionally, these devices will need to comply with stricter privacy regulations as well, ranging from the GDPR in the European Union to HIPAA in the case of medical devices.
2. Data security: There is a lot of potential for misuse of IoT devices and the information collected by them. Thus data security becomes a paramount concern for all the stakeholders in an IoT system. Any company implementing this technology will have to ensure the full safety of their devices and the data they store.
3. Power supply: As IoT devices increase in numbers and decrease in size, supplying power to them becomes challenging and perhaps logistically difficult. Devices in fixed locations could be connected to a power source, but trackers and other such mobile devices may need to rely on batteries for their power. As batteries only have a limited capacity, there will need to be provisions or recharging or replacing these batteries. Added to this, while each device may need hardly any power, the costs of running billions of such devices could be quite high.
However, these challenges aren’t insurmountable. As this technology becomes more and more prevalent, companies will come up with newer solutions to these problems.