Friday, November 17, 2017

Demystifying IoT: What Is the Internet of Things

Raise your hand if you’ve heard of IoT. I’m assuming your hand is raised…because it’s been a trending topic for every industry, from manufacturing to life sciences to home appliances and everything in between. Ok, so you’ve heard of it–but I’m guessing if I asked for a show of virtual hands as to who could confidently explain what IoT is and how it works, the result would be a little lackluster. I was most definitely in the “heard of it but didn’t know what it really was” camp, so I did some digging to demystify this sometimes mysterious tech, and have boiled down the basics so you don’t have to.

What Is IoT?
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term that Kevin Ashton developed in 1999. Simplified, it’s basically the broad term for devices connecting to the internet, while also connecting to other devices. So say your alarm went off in the morning, and when you turned it off, it signaled to your Keurig that it should make your morning coffee (assuming you have a cup resting on the Keurig and a k-cup ready to go). Turning off the alarm would also signal to the television to turn on to the channel that you prefer watching in the morning while you drink your coffee. It could even signal your thermostat to change temperature now that you’re awake. This is a relatively simple application of IoT, but it illustrates how devices can interconnect and function together to create more efficient processes. Now apply this ability to any device and almost any situation. It is all possible with IoT.

Ok. Now you know the basics, so let’s dive a little deeper. The current state of IoT can be broken up into two categories and three subsets:

  1. Information and Analysis
    1. Tracking Behavior
    2. Enhanced Situational Awareness
    3. Sensor Driven Decision Analytics
  2. Automation and Control
    1. Process Optimization
    2. Optimized Resource Consumption
    3. Complex Autonomous Systems

Information and analysis is essentially how it sounds–the IoT connected device can take in information and either provide you with the data, or it can be programmed to look for certain trends and analyze the intake of the information. Beyond the initial intake of data, IoT devices can use this information to either track behavior, enhance situational awareness, or provide sensor driven decision analytics.

Meanwhile, automation and control is taking an IoT connected device and programming it to do something more than just take in information. This can be used for process optimization, optimizing resource consumption, and automating complex systems. The concept of a self-driving car best illustrates a complex autonomous system. It can start itself knowing your route, and will give you a warning if you need to leave earlier due to traffic. It will drop you off at work on time, and when your workday is over will come and pick you up–and can even drive others around while you’re at work.

How It Works
IoT works by connecting your device to the internet with the purpose of either gaining information and analyzing it, or to be able to automate and control functions. So how does this happen? It’s all about the sensor. An IoT-enabled sensor can be embedded in virtually any product that needs to be controlled, from simple “on/off” functionality to more complex tasks like a self-driving tractor. The data from that sensor is integrated into an IoT platform, which is where the data and information gets sorted and analyzed, allowing data to be easily read and digested via a user-facing application. If you’re more of a visual learner, I think this video does a great job of explaining how data gets transferred from sensor to platform and beyond.

Remember those platforms I mentioned earlier–AKA, the way sensor data gets processed and analyzed before it’s shipped off to a user-facing application? As IoT becomes more commonly implemented, some big names in tech have caught on and started to develop their own platforms for aggregating and integrating sensor technology. Here are just a few of the leading platforms (my guess is that you’ve heard of a few of them):

  • Bosch IoT Suite
  • IBM IoT Foundation Device Cloud
  • Xively
  • Cisco
  • Microsoft Azure
  • Google
  • Salesforce

So, while the technical definition of IoT is a little elusive, the use cases are anything but. It’s not hard to imagine how this tech could be implemented in any industry, for any product–we’re already seeing how it’s making everyday life easier for those implementing IoT enabled devices around their homes. Keep an eye out for the next installation in our IoT blog series, in which we’ll cover some current uses of IoT, as well as what the future looks like for this exciting wireless tech.