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Why is the Internet of Things so important?

Jan 2016 Smart Homes | Comments Off on Why is the Internet of Things so important?
Why is the Internet of Things so important?
 

So what is the Internet of Things (IoT)? Why is it becoming so important? And what can it do for electrical contractors and installers? James Hunt tries to answer these questions:

Why on earth would my bed ‘talk’ to my lighting? Why indeed! It can, so this is a very good question. What’s it all about?

All WireIN readers should, by now, have heard about the IoT, not least because even if you’ve not experienced it yet personally, it has been in the news almost daily – even in the consumer press.

So, as experienced electrical professionals, I expect you know at least the basics of what the IoT is. If not, however, here’s a brief overview.

Definition

Take the definition…actually there are several, but a generally accepted one is this: ‘The IoT is an Internet enabled network of physical objects (or ‘things’), each having integral electronics, software, sensors and connectivity that will together enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator and / or other connected devices.’

That’s quite a long definition, albeit self-explanatory, but try this one: ‘The IoT is as of countless ‘things’ that are fitted with uniquely identifiable embedded devices that are wirelessly connected to the Net.

These ‘nodes’, as the ‘things’ are called, can send or receive information without human intervention. To achieve this, every ‘thing’ – which could be an LED light source or luminaire, or thermostat, or an industrial controller, for example – must be uniquely identifiable through its embedded computing system, yet it must also be able to interoperate within the existing Internet infrastructure. Such devices already exist.

To give you an idea of how far the IoT has gone already, such nodes can even be fitted to animals (to track or find them), and they already are. Indeed, IoT nodes can also be attached people and their clothes, for a variety of reasons we may or may not like…Big Brother anybody??

There are many human rights, privacy and security issues directly related to some of the myriad uses for IoT devices, but there are many upsides too, and the IoT has the potential to change all of our lives.

The IoT has actually existed for some years, though it is only now becoming more widely understood and used. Partly, this is because the IoT is limited only by the imagination, really, and most people and organisations are only just starting to realise the potential.

Typically, IoT covers many protocols, domains and applications, and should offer advanced connectivity of devices, systems, and services that go beyond machine-to-machine (M2M) communications. The interconnection of all such embedded devices will also help enable advanced applications such as smart grids.

Not only that, with a huge increase in connected devices expected within a very few years, switched-on (and suitably trained) electrical contractors and installers should also be able to gain very significant extra business from the IoT.

Why the IoT?

There are many reasons. For example, IoT connected devices can monitor your body rhythms, improve sleep, interact with special lighting systems to change brightness, colour, mood or turn if off – all without getting out of bed!

But what has this to do with the electrical installation sector? Firstly, estimates vary, but it is likely (indeed virtually certain) that there will be between 50 and 200 billion connected devices by 2020 – this may well be conservative.

Current examples of these smart devices include consumer items like Google Nest thermostats, Wi-Fi-enabled fridges and washing machines, connected lighting systems, such as OSRAM’s Lightify and Philips’ Hue. There are many, many more – such as self-driving cars and vehicles that park for you. And industrial automation and the industrial Ethernet has very large numbers of IoT connected sensor and control devices already.

Devices having embedded communications that can be controlled remotely or respond to changes in conditions (weather, energy prices, etc.) are now becoming available. For example, Wi-Fi enabled air conditioners can automatically enter themselves into utility demand-side response programmes, or could make decisions on their output and energy consumption based on a series of pre-set ranges in conjunction with thermostats and energy price data.

As they are already Wi-Fi enabled, smart meters will become part of the IoT, where devices will be able to communicate with each other to drive efficiency, lifestyle and business benefits.

Once connected, devices can report their energy consumption data, energy efficient consumption becomes more transparent, and measures can be adopted and monitored to make consumption more efficient still. Furthermore, the interconnection of all such embedded devices will also help enable advanced applications such as smart grids.

Choice, training and installation

Typically, IoT covers many protocols, domains and applications, and should offer advanced connectivity of devices, systems, and services that go much further than existing M2M communications. Then there’s the equally fast-growing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) with its IoT controllers and suchlike. Training will be needed, yet the possibilities are vast.

Despite the fact that many of these IoT devices will be – by their very nature – ‘plug & play’ items that householders can fit, the sheer numbers and variety will mean that there will be huge opportunities for switched on electrical wholesalers, contractors and installers, not to mention manufacturers.

Many electrical installers, including some WireIN readers, might worry about whether installing IoT devices will be tricky and times consuming. The essential answer is that as long as devices comply with the appropriate interoperability standards, installing IoT devices – of which many of the domestic ones at least are essentially ‘plug & play’ – is little different from installing other wireless devices.

Even so, more IoT training courses for electrical contractors and installers would be highly beneficial.

Privacy and security worries

There are, however, downsides. For example, the UK is already one of the most extreme surveillance societies in the world, with an unusually large number of CCTV cameras recording our movements. The IoT holds the possibility that organisations will be able to intensify personal surveillance.

Moreover, there is the serious issue of security. If everything become digitally interconnected, the likelihood of attempted hacking attacks increases, as do the dangers if such attacks succeed. Crucial factors are security and privacy, but the third is sustainability, which is often overlooked. ‘Sustainability’ in this context means the ‘life-cycle supportability of a device and the protection of the data after the warranty ends’, and yet important capability gaps in privacy and security design remain. For example, when someone sells a house with a smart thermostat or garage door, how does the new owner ensure former users can no longer access these devices?

But there are potentially more serious scenarios. Security experts are continuing to warn that IoT devices will be increasingly targeted by cyber-criminals in 2015, as uptake continues to grow among consumers and enterprises.

Indeed, security concerns are developing faster than even the IoT itself. This is especially so when it is considered that IoT devices will be connected to smart grids, smart cities, water and gas utilities, energy organisations, transport etc. And domestic smart meters will connect homes to power utilities. Knowing this, the potential for catastrophe is certainly clear, whether by accident, by virus intrusion or via hacking.

So, if we are not very careful, massive security issues probably will (not might) one day cause catastrophic damage to our infrastructures unless these issues are seriously addressed quickly.

Looking at standards, it’s very clear that this is already a crucially important – though already divisive – IoT topic; after all, how will devices connect to others without interoperability standards? Yet, devices so far conform to a wide range of often non-interoperable standards.

Cross-industry open source organisation the AllSeen Alliance (www.allseenalliance.org), among others, believes that the IoT cannot meet its full potential without an open platform to ensure interoperability between devices from different manufacturers.

Then there’s new research by ON World, which finds that the wireless standard ZigBee, which is already being used by many IoT devices, continues to increase its share of the IEEE 802.15.4 and smart home markets. By 2020, the study claims, ZigBee standards will be used in 8 out of 10 of the 802.15.4 chipset shipments.

Furthermore, in latest news, the Thread Group (www.threadgroup.org) has announced that it has completed the specification and documentation for its IP-based wireless networking protocol for low-power connected devices in the home.

And these represent just a very few examples of potential interoperability clashes for connected and IoT devices. Therefore, organisations such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), and the European IoT-A (Internet of Things – Architecture) project, among others, are looking to provide architectural frameworks that define relationships between IoT domains and devices, as well as appropriate security schemes. As these few examples show, it’s clear that there is much work to do as far as standards are concerned.

In any case, what is the point, some might say, in having a domestic IoT device for (say) monitoring your heartbeat interoperable with an IIoT plant controller? These are crucially important issues that must be worked out and agreed upon before the IoT can come near its ultimate take-up.

So, in conclusion, there’s a great deal to consider, to look forward to and be worried about…these are exciting times! A version of this article was originally published by www.voltimum.co.uk