“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
— Arthur C. Clarke
Although the Internet of Things (IoT) is built on established technology, it is evolving so rapidly that its capabilities can, at times, feel like magic. To convey just how deeply IoT changes our relationship to the physical world, it makes sense to dive a bit deeper into its diverse functions.
Ongoing Conversation with the Physical World
Physical objects are no longer silent. They can relay information about themselves–and about YOU. Embedded or connected sensors are constantly gathering, storing, and analyzing data of all varieties. This data is uploaded to the Internet in a two-way conversation, facilitating further control and customization by human beings or automated systems.
Have you ever looked at your suddenly unreliable car and asked “What’s wrong with you?” When a car breaks down, or the mysterious check engine light turns on, an inevitable trip to the mechanic awaits. And there, they make an educated guess before running an involved, manual test to diagnose. Similarly, if an assembly line suddenly stops working at a factory, additional resources trickle in to troubleshoot, costing significant time and money.
Now, with Industrial IoT (IIoT) implementation, cars and production equipment alike can self-diagnose and relay their problems clearly and accurately. Remote alarms, technical assistance notifications, and even integrated 3D augmented reality diagrams allow for more timely, efficient, and frugal fixes.
Many aspects of physical health and wellness, as well as athletic performance can be ascertained through measurement — and, increasingly, there are smart devices available to provide continuous, informative feedback. An athlete can wear a device to help monitor heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and even the level of lactic acid in their muscles.
People with both known, chronic and latent health conditions have multiple monitoring options, through wearable sensing devices or networked sensors in their environment. Diabetics will soon be able to use a smart contact lens to measure the glucose levels in their tears, removing the need for inconvenient finger-prick blood tests.
Additionally, people who live alone, namely the aging population, can wear a monitor that immediately summons help if they fall down in their home. The Apple Watch Series 4, for example, offers ECG functionality along with several other proactive heart monitoring features.
Blurring the Boundaries of Time
IoT’s predictive maintenance will work to reduce breakdowns–both mechanical and biological. Another way to investigate predictive maintenance is through the context of time. We can’t time travel (yet), but our relationship with physical systems is not limited to the here and now.
Analytics are reaching a point where they can apply massive amounts of data to project what will happen under future conditions. With that information, they can either activate a human being to address the potential problem, or make a smart, automated adjustment.
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Predictive maintenance provides relief from the frustration and expense of “20-20 hindsight.” If you have a complex machine or system that is sensitive to numerous changes in its environment, the need to ensure optimal performance is extreme. The “digital twin” or virtual duplicate solution allows for more in-depth functionality analysis for a machine, or for a process.
Digital simulations can learn and update autonomously, by collecting massive amounts of historical operational data. This data can subsequently be subjected to a variety of potential conditions in order to see what the outcome of those conditions would be– without risking the vitality of the actual machine.
Sensory data from the field can be integrated with information from the digital twin, so that there is always a predictive basis to mitigate problems before they happen. This technology is already in play for complex systems including, power generation turbines, jet engines, offshore drilling platforms, and HVAC systems.
Distance is No Longer a Factor
In addition to providing actionable future vision, new IoT connectivity leaps the barriers of physical geography. Past generations experienced the cultural changes fueled by the telegraph and telephone. And now, a whole new set of social changes will result from manipulating physical objects as if we were right there.
A smart doorbell, for example, will notify you and let you video chat with a parcel deliverer. You can remotely open the door and watch via live camera feed while the person places the package on your entry table. If you’re at the grocery store, you can check with your fridge to see if you’re out of milk. You can even activate sensors to indicate whether your leftovers are still good.
While many consumer applications present a certain frivolity/luxury facade, larger-scale industrial/public applications translate to much broader improvements. Intelligent systems can learn to recognize harmful situations, and shut themselves down to prevent destruction.
- Sensors at airports can detect biochemical threats.
- Smart utility grids can ramp up or dial back production automatically in response to fluctuating needs.
- Crop sensors monitor the condition of plants, and automate the release of water or pest control without the farmer having to be constantly out in the field.
Generating New Ecosystems
Buildings are coming alive, monitoring their own light, heat, security, and more. The next step in the evolution of connected devices is networked smart systems. Instead of individual home devices like thermostats, fridge or window blinds, companies are beginning to offer more holistic systems. These include security, entertainment, HVAC, lighting and more. Apple released its HomeKit with this capability in mind.
A bigger picture view features nationwide city infrastructure behaving as a living organism:
- Stoplights adjust their signals in response to a networked understanding of real-time traffic needs.
- Apps give drivers up-to-date parking space information, to reduce gridlock and air pollution from too many circling cars.
- San Diego recently installed street lights that activate only when a pedestrian or vehicle is approaching.
- Trash cans in Philadelphia signal when they need to be emptied, allowing the city to drop its number of garbage-collecting shifts from 17 to three.