Smarter Sensors

Making the Internet of Things soar

14 March 2014
Illustration: Stuart Bradford

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Sensors, actuators, and RFID tags have been around for a couple of decades. The identification and tracking they make possible—noting what an object is and where it has been—are being used to manage inventory, monitor machinery, and track packages and livestock, to name a few examples. Minuscule sensors are just about everywhere, including automobiles, cellphones, clothing, credit cards, exercise equipment, gaming consoles, and along highways.

Now the next technological phase is being ushered in: the Internet of Things, a network of objects made possible by the Internet, as well as by Wi-Fi, tablets, smartphones, and apps. Today’s mobile devices are outfitted with a host of sensors, including accelerometers, gyroscopes, and microphones, to say nothing of compasses, GPS capability, and cameras—all sharing data wirelessly over the Internet.

Current examples of what the IoT makes possible include controlling home electronics from the office, locating empty spaces in parking lots, checking carbon monoxide levels, and monitoring crops. The IoT’s full potential will be unleashed when small networks become one humongous network of products, systems, and machines, extending across the globe.

A TRILLION AND COUNTING

In 2012, about 3.7 million things were connected to the Internet via sensors, according to a report issued at the Trillion Sensors Summit, held last October at Stanford University and attended by representatives of more than 100 organizations from 14 countries. The goal of the meeting was to think up sensor-based applications likely to enter the market in the coming decade. The result was a startling prediction: The number of connected machines and devices will grow to 1 trillion by 2022.

The IoT is expected to affect how businesses operate, including unlocking new revenue from existing products and inspiring new processes. An Economist survey of more than 770 businesses around the world found that 75 percent of them are already exploring the IoT and 95 percent expect to be using IoT applications by 2016. The magazine published its findings in June as part of its Internet of Things business index report.

But as smart as the sensors already are, the success of the IoT depends on their becoming even smarter with, for example, their own IP addresses so they can be identified together with their location, according to IEEE Senior Member Chonggang Wang, editor in chief of the new IEEE Internet of Things Journal and a senior staff engineer at InterDigital Communications, in King of Prussia, Pa. Wang’s research interests include machine-to-machine communications and developing the architecture, protocols, applications, and other enabling technologies for the IoT.

“Today’s sensors generally have resource constraints, including limited computation and storage, short battery life, and the inability to communicate with each other,” he says. He points to areas where IEEE can take the lead in making the IoT a reality, including standards, education, and promoting its benefits to business owners and the public.

WHY NOW?

Interest in the IoT has picked up for several reasons. Internet Protocol Version 6, introduced in 2012, extended the number of unique Internet addresses, making it possible to connect trillions of physical objects to the Net. Then there’s the ascent of cloud computing, which can store the deluge of data the sensors generate, coupled with new analytical tools and high-performance computers to make sense of it all.

Add to that the falling cost of sensors that handle RFID and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). According to the Economist report, the cost of RFID tags fell by 40 percent in the past two years; they now cost as little as 10 U.S. cents each. Meanwhile the cost of MEMS such as accelerometers, gyroscopes, and pressure sensors has fallen by nearly 90 percent in the past five years. And a Wi-Fi router, needed to connect individual devices to the Internet and exchange data, can cost about $10, down from around $200 a few years ago. Finally, the world’s mobile devices can now communicate with each other as well as with their owners.

But until certain drawbacks are addressed, the IoT won’t reach its full potential, according to Wang. He refers to what is needed using the acronym SMART. The IoT, he says, must be:

  • Scalable and robust and provide custom information at appropriate periods and in suitable data forms, as required by different applications and services.
  • Monitored and managed easily. If software on remote sensors must be updated, the sensors need to be discoverable no matter where they are. That requires an efficient management approach.
  • Adaptable to the sensors’ changing conditions or context while being able to talk automatically to other sensors.
  • Reliable. Data uploaded wirelessly to a cloud must be dependably transmitted and reported.
  • Trustworthy. A mechanism is needed to ensure data are not being manipulated while in transit and that only trusted parties can access sensitive data such as medical information.

A big obstacle holding back greater adoption is the immaturity of industry standards. That is true despite the fact that the IEEE Standards Association has already issued nearly 80 standards applicable to the IoT; more than 40 are under development. The IEEE-SA held a workshop and webinar last year to promote its standards, and more meetings are scheduled this year.

“We need standards so different sensors can talk to each other more easily,” Wang says, “and open architectures that can enable and accommodate different applications.”

HELP WANTED

Businesses cite a lack of employee skills and knowledge as the No. 1 obstacle to their use of the IoT, according to the Economist report.

“Companies moving from research to the planning stage need employees who understand the technology underlying the IoT, such as wireless systems, networks, and sensors,” the report states. Who better than IEEE members to address those needs? asks Wang. IEEE is doing just that with its IoT website, conferences, publications, and webinars.

Once companies develop IoT products, consumers and business leaders will need to be sold on their benefits in language they can understand, Wang says: “For non-tech people to accept the IoT, the technology needs to be simple and the user interfaces friendly. But we also need to educate people about its benefits and address their worries about privacy and security. People must be made to feel more accepting of the IoT if it is to be widely deployed.”

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