The next phase of the Internet is on its way: a world of networked smart devices equipped with sensors and radio-frequency identification, connected to the Internet, all sharing information with each other without human intervention. Known as the Internet of Things (IoT), it will link approximately 50 billion machines and devices by 2020, predicts Cisco Systems futurist Dave Evans.
A bit of the IoT is already here, used by the automotive, transportation, utility, and surveillance industries. Several car models, for example, monitor their internal functions and alert owners about needed maintenance. Homes in Washington, D.C., and parts of Maryland had their electricity restored in just two days after Hurricane Sandy thanks to “no power” signals sent by their smart meters to the utility’s central monitoring post.
But those applications just scratch the surface of what is possible. “Integrating sensors and actuators with the cloud will be one area that will define the development of IoT industries,” says IEEE Senior Member Oleg Logvinov, director of market development at STMicroelectronics’ Industrial and Power Conversion Division, in Piscataway, N.J. He serves on the IEEE Standards Association Standards Board and its Corporate Advisory Group and is among the leaders of IEEE’s IoT standards efforts. “The pervasive connectivity and distributed intelligence of the IoT will play increasingly important roles in our daily lives,” Logvinov says. “And standards are key to the IoT’s success.”
The basic technology, the interfaces, and even the procedures for initializing devices newly attached to the IoT will involve new standards whose development will require extensive industry partnerships. IEEE has begun forming relationships with the China Communications Standards Association (CCSA) and similar groups, and is holding conferences and workshops around the world to discuss with industry the systems, infrastructure, applications, and standards that are needed.
A global collaboration has already led to one IoT-related standard, IEEE 1888, which was started in China by companies, universities, and other organizations that wanted to reduce the nation’s surging energy use. Released in March 2011, IEEE 1888 Standard for Ubiquitous Green Community Control Network Protocol helps large commercial buildings use less energy through remote surveillance, operation, management, and maintenance with the use of sensors and surveillance monitors. It is the first corporate standards project to leverage information and communications technologies for energy savings.
“No vibrant ecosystem can be built without interoperability achieved on many levels. And interoperability is not possible without standards, for which IEEE is a perfect platform for IoT-related collaborations,” Logvinov says.
IEEE partnered with CCSA in June to hold an IoT standards workshop in Beijing. The country was a natural choice because Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao had identified the IoT as one of the nation’s seven strategic emerging industries. China plans to invest 5 billion yuan (US $800 million) in the IoT industry by 2015.
“The IoT has the capacity to be a transformative force, positively impacting the lives of millions worldwide,” says Bingmei Wu, deputy secretary-general of the CCSA.
The workshop brought together leading global industry experts seeking ways to achieve a common IoT architecture. Representatives were on hand from China Telecom, the China Academy of Telecommunication Research (CATR), IBM, Siemens, and STMicroelectronics. Topics, in addition to current standards efforts, included convergent networks and machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. (As of 2011, China had the largest M2M market in the world.)
“Standardizing on a common architecture will help ensure interoperability, compatibility, and reliability, enabling the IoT to truly become a change agent for continued technology advancement,” says Mary Lynne Nielsen, director of corporate programs for IEEE-SA. “By facilitating an open dialog among key stakeholders, the Beijing workshop helped move the process forward, putting us that much closer to making IoT a reality.”
Yu Xiaohui, chief engineer of CATR, which is part of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, reported at the workshop that IoT applications in China were being used mainly in food security and in steel, petrochemicals, and automobile manufacturing. For example, the country’s Ministries of Commerce and Finance jointly developed a tracking and tracing system using RFID and bar codes to ensure food safety for meat and vegetables in 20 cities. The other industries are developing IoT applications for such tasks as managing the supply chain, improving manufacturing processes, and controlling energy consumption.
According to Xiaohui, more than 40 Chinese municipalities have applied to build so-called smart cities, which would rely on IoT applications to make infrastructure and services—including education, health care, public safety, transportation, and utilities—more interconnected and efficient.
“The IoT will be the key for smart-city construction, and the development of smart cities will provide the application market for the IoT,” he said.
You can hear several workshop speakers talk about IEEE-SA and China’s roles in developing the IoT in the video below:
Last November, the IEEE Standards Association held a one-day IoT workshop in Milan, Italy, that included panel discussions and showcased a variety of IoT-related products. The workshop tried to identify collaboration opportunities and standardization gaps related to the IoT, help industry foster the growth of IoT markets, leverage IEEE’s value and platform for developing an IoT industry-wide consensus, and help industry create an IoT ecosystem.
Industry representatives came from companies that included ABI Research, Bouygues Telecom, Ericsson, SIM Alliance, and STMicroelectronics. Sessions included “The IoT in Households, Buildings and Cities: The Telco and Construction Company Point of View,” “Key Trends in the Connected Smart Home: How Telcos, Cable Operators, Utilities, and Security Companies Are Approaching the Market,” and “End-to-End System Security for IoT.”
“Ericsson and STMicroelectronics demonstrated an approach based on the uniform exposure of IoT devices to cloud services,” Logvinov points out. “This is an alternative to the current practice that is basically a ‘vertical solution,’ which means single device, single application.” In this new approach, he says, “application-independent tools allow for many-to-many logical connectivity, and applications share a common approach to the interaction with the devices that can be easily reused in newly developed applications.”
He adds: “Any device can be an application-independent device if it is capable of exposing a unified device access framework. That is where standardization can play a significant role.”
But while the IoT promises many benefits, it also comes with challenges.
Logvinov notes that the IoT will not be possible without reliable connectivity, including among gateways and the cloud, at an affordable price.
Another issue is security. As more things are connected, he says, cyberattacks are more of a risk.
Users’ privacy is another worry, Logvinov adds: “As we expose more of our personal data to the IoT and the cloud—and not just credit card information but also energy consumption patterns and location information—the concerns related to the protection of this information will influence the development of IoT systems and their architectures.”
But not to worry. Logvinov believes all the problems can be solved. “A combination of conferences, publications, workshops, and an open collaboration process,” he says, “will be the platform that enables industry to answer the demands of the IoT marketplace.”
This article has been corrected from the original version.