IoT Promise Needs a Reality Check

Image credit: iStockphoto/Jae Young Ju

Tech journalism years back touted the “Internet of Things” — an oddly named loose collective of devices. The IoT would include everything from garage-door openers to power management systems, and these disparate devices were connected. All sorts of Internet-enabled “things” would make our personal and professional lives more manageable.

Connected devices were rushed to market, trying to ride the coattails of IoT hype — some were sensible, and others were not. At the consumer level, the IoT is now best known as voice-activated devices connected to large datacentric platforms, like Amazon's Alexa or Google's Nest.

Those devices can be considered parts of an IoT sensor network, although retail devices sold to spur e-commerce aren't a good example of such a network. “IoT sensor networks — networks of small devices, or nodes that detect, analyze, and transmit physical data — are a prime example of ongoing evolution,” says the U.S. Government National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

“Fueled by the development of cheaper, smaller sensors and by users’ appetites for more smart and wearable devices, the wireless sensor network market was valued at USD 573 million in 2016 and is projected to increase to at least USD 1.2 billion by 2023,” adds the NCCoE.

Networks of small devices

The networks to which NIST refers are the beneficiaries of sensor and battery development. IoT sensor networks should be a key focus for industries as we move forward into a post-COVID era. We've seen — and quantified — the benefits of technology like RFID and seen RFID-based tech evolve as price-points for passive components like RFID tags drop.

Real change accelerates when all tech components see price-point drops. Here's a (fictional) example.

Let's say a facility from a decade ago had eight engines, each cooled by ten cooling pumps. Each of the pumps had a bulky sensor monitoring it, powered by a battery with a reliable life of less than a year. Unfortunately, these sensors became unreliable after a few months, meaning a crew of technicians (on standby 24/7) visited the facility regularly to check sensors, replace batteries, etc.

Fast-forward a few years — now, each pump has several sensors on it, powered by batteries that last five or ten years. The sensors monitor the pump, each other and communicate potential problems via M2M (machine-to-machine). Far more data is available on each pump, engine, and facility — meaning more accurate measurement and enhanced maintenance. As sensors continue to advance and prices drop, such networks may make more financial sense for chief digital officers everywhere.

Governments become keen

Research firm Gartner released a report in June predicting that the “worldwide government IoT endpoint electronics and communications market will total USD 21.3 billion in 2022...a 22% increase from a forecasted total of USD 17.5 billion in 2021.” So what's driving the sector's increase?

“Local governments worldwide are increasingly using IoT technology to monitor their infrastructure and assets more effectively and improve citizens’ safety and living environments, including controlling the spread of COVID-19 and checking quarantine compliance,” says Kay Sharpington, senior principal research analyst at Gartner. “In addition, the falling cost of devices is contributing to the financial viability of projects that utilize outdoor surveillance cameras and city asset tracking.”

“Over the past year, the role of cameras has expanded into checking for social distancing and mask wearing to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased use for contactless parking management,” adds Sharpington. “Their adoption will continue to increase at a different pace across regions as data privacy regulations vary across countries.”

She notes that countries less burdened by data privacy regulations would be “a key contributor to growth [as they can use] cameras that harness advanced image recognition and video analytics techniques.”

Data privacy and security are perennial issues. As Wikipedia notes: “There are a number of serious concerns about dangers in the growth of the IoT, especially in the areas of privacy and security, and consequently industry and governmental moves to address these concerns have begun including the development of international standards.”

Networks stressed in Texas heat

An early example of IoT beneficence in a government network: a household power meter. Monitoring power consumption remotely would help consumers save energy and money. Win-win, right?

The concept has merit, but we know that anything devised and built by humans can be broken by the same. Power meters have been targeted by hackers, but perhaps the greater manipulator is...the power company?

A June article on Gizmodo described what happened in the heat of the Texan summer: “The Electric Reliability Council of Texas [ERCOT] urged residents to do their part by raising the temperature on their thermostats, but several smart thermostats owners say their devices have been controlled remotely to conserve energy, leaving them in sweltering homes without a clue as to why.”

Apparently, “several residents in the Houston area said they’d unknowingly enrolled in a program called 'Smart Savers Texas' exchange for an entry into a sweepstake, electric customers grant permission for the program’s operator, EnergyHub, to control their thermostats during periods of high energy demand.”

“EnergyHub’s website says it has partnered with several thermostat providers, including Google and Amazon, and its list of clients includes major energy companies such as National Grid, CenterPoint Energy, and ERCOT,” wrote Gizmodo.

Perhaps the smaller the IoT sensor network, the better.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Jae Young Ju