Demystifying IoT and M2M

Nick Lidington

Posted 01/12/2016
  Read more from Nick

You've heard the terms, everyone is on the IoT bandwagon it seems but does anyone know what it means or how it affects them? As with all technology it has to start with engineers proposing and designing things. But quite quickly the tech jargon slips into marketing and we are being sold to on new systems where we are not clear about what these new systems are about and what they will do for us. IoT - the Internet of things is just this set of circumstances for most people. What is it? Why do I want it? What will it do for me?

De mystifying IoT and M2M

You've heard the terms, everyone is on the IoT bandwagon it seems but does anyone know what it means or how it affects them? As with all technology it has to start with engineers proposing and designing things. But quite quickly the tech jargon slips into marketing and we are being sold on on new systems where we are not clear about what these new systems are about and what they will do for us. IoT - the Internet of things is just this set of circumstances for most people. What is it? Why do I want it? What will it do for me?

Much has been written about the two technology areas and no self-respecting company that has any connection to the technology world has taken advantage of the now near ubiquitous usage of the terms for some aspect of what they do. There is now such a welter of articles and me-too marketing to harness the power of "IoT" that it is likely that many people read the words but are not much wiser afterward. We often hear, asked quietly, "what does all that mean?" Like most pieces of technology, the original idea was simple but the implementation is not quite so simple due to some bits of the necessary technology not being quite available yet, ending up in some kind of compromise. In the quest to "capitalise" on a connected world (the internet of things) where everyday pieces of equipment are connected up, the average person asks the question why do we need this? The general answer comes back with visions of "connected cars", media everywhere, Smart homes, Smart transport , Smart metering etc. These are extremely large ideas about IoT and promise the investor high returns with visions of the third industrial revolution being talked about. Also, the user (you and me), are promised a more fulfilling life, simplicity of technical systems, cheaper services and of course everything available as an app on your already enlarged mobile phone. Many folk question all this IoT talk not really understanding it, but then, what is it to understand, that they want out of it anyway nobody is really explaining. Some instances of M2M and IoT offerings go like this: The connected car is touted as being one of the big users of IoT, embracing it all the way. Some of the visions of connected cars offer us driverless technology as IoT as well as automatic motorway speed to control to keep traffic flowing, free parking space 'knowledge'. All this and as many consumable media downloads as you can consume - in-car. Today's connected car can be locked by your mobile phone from 200 miles away. The same car can download maps from your PC in a completely different location to your car. The intelligent car can tell you what is happening to it, as it happens, and offer solutions. However, I suspect that most folk are only interested in knowing how to get to where they want to go using satnav that works well, and to be able to call for help if in trouble, also to use their phone in the car for music and calls - all in addition to having a nice car to get about in. I am not sure what else most people want out of a connected car. Then, to site this as a vision of major IoT enterprise, is probably only relevant to the car manufacturers as they seek to differentiate their cars and generate revenue from a media service to their connected car. I doubt the car user is clamouring for this vision of IoT.

Another much talked about area for IoT is the Smart home where the connected home and all its heating, cooling and lighting controls are either under the user's app-on-mobile-phone control from anywhere or is learning itself about how you are living as to what it does. It seems to me that this has more to do with true IoT and has more tangible interest to everyday folk. The description of what is happening is far simpler and is likely to be entirely understandable by most people who have a home where they have to pay for heating and lighting.

In simple terms and how it is likely to be understood by most folk, it is not about more media services it will be more about being connected to things where the user is happy to pay for the service. In the finality it is likely to be about making things work in a more controllable way whether you are on site or remote from what needs to be controlled, looked at, adjusted or just plain reassurance needed on security etc. Some people / businesses may need to know whether their freezer has just broken down or looks like it will do even if they are in another remote location. Others would take the opportunity of being able to see and review the operation of a suite of equipments from a single remote location - if the technology was available, cost effective and worked seamlessly. Many homeowners would like the ability to be able to remotely understand what is happening or be able to control access to their property(ies) and of course its heating. These are the sorts of IoT applications people are likely to be interested in and pay money for. Unfortunately, these applications don't really get the press attention compared with the mega battalions. Mega battalions - I mean, for example, where electricity and water meter readings are taken automatically over wireless nodes and communicated back over the cloud to a large data analysis centre and billed accordingly. The average man on the street does not really care that this is a use of IoT except if it results in a cheaper service.

There must be many more old buildings in the world that pre-date any kind of smart home wiring or thinking. These buildings are mostly revered, liked and looked after and are not likely to be cleared away in favour of new 'Smart home' buildings. So, how are these buildings likely to be attached to the IoT in the future to gain the benefits of controlled access, heating, lighting and from remote locations etc. Most IoT vision articles talk about these new worlds of technology as how life is or will be when most people are still trying to upgrade their boiler or convert to LED lighting for a lower cost of running. There is a painful dearth of information for the man in the street as to how to upgrade his everyday systems into the digital world for more control and better efficiency. The latest TV/tablet download / on-demand viewing service seems to be far more understood as a technology.

IoT will be better understood by all when manufacturers offer equipment that can be connected to the cloud and can be controlled by the internet or wireless means. To make this happen plumbers, electricians and installers also need to get trained and understand / demand such wireless / internet controlled equipment. Homeowners and business premises owners take advice from electricians, plumbers and heating engineers as to what equipment they can use to control their buildings. Equipment designers need to offer IoT enabled kit for homes and business buildings we all have to use, and crucially, also to start training / educating the installers and the gen public of the availability of the kit, how to install it with old systems and what it will do for most folk. When this happens IoT systems will be proposed by installers and the benefits understood and simply usable by the general public.
There are now one or two new heating control systems that are available that are starting to meet that need - but the information that exists about where, how to use this equipment is painfully thin compared with standard and long available programmer control equipment. The training of personnel as to how to use it also looks to be very slow judging by the websites of most heating engineers and electrical installers. At the moment one needs to be an electronics engineer to understand beyond any advertising as to what a 'connected' system will do and how it can be applied to existing systems practically. The author being one the described engineers who has had to work out himself how certain advertised pieces of heating IoT kit work, how they can be applied to old legacy systems and what they will enable you to do.

The simplicity of IoT should and will in future be this. At any particular point that needs to be measured, controlled or viewed there has to be a sensor - temperature, humidity, pressure, camera (it's a sensor), open/close sensor. There are countless others but they all sense something important to the user. The sensed medium is then converted it into electronic signals. The signals need then to be collected - perhaps at defined time intervals and then packaged up. The electronic kit the sensor(s) are connected to then needs to perform analysis on the signals to assess whether they are within the set parameters or what the user has requested. This set of data then needs to be communicated to the user. Upto now that has been something visual on site (red light maybe) or something beeping at the user. In the new IoT world this data needs to be sent to the user wherever the user is. The sensor and electronics then must be connected to the internet somehow. In a home this is often done via wifi to the home - wifi AP. This then is the big step for most people and equipment manufacturers and then fitters. How do you do that without needing to be a 'techy' to understand it or connect it up? There are other connection mediums, such as connecting directly to a cellular router or modem like the Siretta linkCONNECT or routeCONNECT ranges or other wireless sensor networks such as 6LowPAN etc. The 6LowPAN technology is used where several sensors and electronics are networked together before the collective packets of data are sent to the internet to be used by the user. So, we have the data packets now created, analysed and being sent off the premises over the internet. To make it simple for the user to access the sent information this is where the 'cloud software platforms' come in. There are many such offerings from many companies and all in their infancy. But simply, they offer the user to be able to sign up for a unique user log-in on a website and to then 'describe' their sensors to the software (simple everyday language used) and the 'address' of the sensors, whereupon the user is presented with the packets of information that their remote sensors have sent. The data is presented in a form that all of us can understand such as your home is at 14 degrees and would you like to change this? This is broadly what is happening in the British gas Hive heating control system as is the Nest learning thermostat where the mobile phone app is the user interface to the cloud software that is accepting the sensor data and forwarding it to the user. The control of equipment as a result of the information received is just the reverse process, where the sensor and its electronics receives packets of data telling it to make an adjustment to the heating or access control or whatever the sensor is monitoring. This is the simple view and likely worldwide use of the 'internet-of-things' where the 'things' are thermostats, door locks, heating and cooling appliances, lighting etc. These can be for homes or industry or villages alike - the simplicity of the process is the same. Much of the complication perceived in putting in systems and controls as described is the software that has to go with it to enable the kit to connect to the internet and other parts of the system. So, this is the software found on the newly installed kit in your home or business premises to enable kit to connect to the internet and for the user to set up and use the controls on the kit. The software / app connects wirelessly to the rest of the heating system or whatever is being controlled via the wifi access point generally, the home or business broadband router. This is where the next biggest problem seems to be. The software is often developed in a way such that too much user knowledge or interest is assumed and with poor user manuals and use of techie jargon. My observation is that often the wireless connecting process is far from simple and foolproof, does not work-out-of-the-box and requires knowledge of IP addressing and other IT stuff to make it work. Often the manuals covering the kit are not clear and use tech terms that most are not interested in or don't understand. The manufacturers that make well developed software IoT products where the user can fit, or have fitted, the kit easily with it 'connecting up' simply with no wireless tech knowledge required, will win in the general IoT arena. Trying to convince the public to connect to 'dynamic DNS' or wide area network IP addressing will just leave the kit in the box not used.

So, IoT simply said, is the connecting up of everyday appliances and kit that we all use so that it can report information we want or control things we want controlling all from a remote location - 20 metre away or 200 miles away - using PCs, tablets or mobile phones as the remote interface.

Tags: M2M iot