What is the Internet of Things (IoT) and what does it mean to us?

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 12.55.11Prof Willie Donnelly, founder of the Telecommunications Software and Systems Group (TSSG) and head of research at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), said the Internet as consumers know it revolves around humans interacting with one another via shared computer networks. To understand the IoT, he said, think of an internet generated by physical devices without human intervention.

“For instance, we can have pollution sensors on a street which can communicate with sensors in cars to regulate the cars’ acceleration and speed profile to minimise their emissions,” he said.

In another example, a home or work environment can contain a number of sensors that collaborate to manage energy consumption in the room. When a room is unoccupied, the sensors will power down all devices and set the temperature to a reasonable level.

“Health sensors can also be incorporated into the home environment,” Donnelly added. “In the case of the elderly, body sensors can monitor a patient’s well-being to ensure the environment is optimised to the patient’s needs. In the case of any degradation of the patient’s condition, it may transfer information on the patient’s status to a nurse, who can then intervene.”

In the telecoms world, communication between devices that have a set mission, such as recording temperatures, footfall at a concert or football match, or diagnostics from the engine of a car, involves what are effectively mobile devices with SIMs inside them.

These devices, Donnelly said, are known in the telecoms industry as machine-to-machine (M2M) devices. In 2013, the number of M2M devices the mobile industry reached 195m, showing a growth curve of nearly 40pc per year between 2010 and 2013.

To market, to market

Estimates from various sources for the number of IoT-enabled devices coming to market by 2020 reach well into the billions, double-digit billions, such as 20m to 50bn. So it is becoming truly pervasive, Donnelly said.

“The utilities markets are a prime example,” he added. “Devices are being used to more effectively manage power consumption within the home, industry, offices or shopping centres.”

In each of these cases, the sensor networks are collecting and analysing usage behaviour to provide profiles to optimise power usage and minimise cost.

For instance, the smart electricity grid uses sensor technology to gather and act on information, such as information about the behaviours of suppliers and consumers, in an automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.

“Likewise, in the water industry, sensors can be used to monitor water flow, consumer usage and even to identify leaks in the network,” said Donnelly. “Street lighting, pollution monitoring and traffic management use IoT technology to create a smart city environment, providing better management of city life.”

Yet if the UK is investing stg£45m in its IoT what is a country like Ireland – synonymous with telecoms since the first transatlantic telecom cables were laid in the 19th century – doing to keep its edge, and how will the country benefit?

Early adoption

Ireland is a small, highly networked country with the potential to bring the key producers and consumers together to rapidly build and trial IoT solutions, said Donnelly.

In the first instance, he said, Ireland should be an early adopter of IoT technology. “We may initially focus on those areas where government is a major provider of financial support, such as waste management, environmental management, healthcare and urban development. The first generation of IoT solutions are bespoke and specialised to particular domains, such as energy and transport.”

Donnelly added that the emergence of cloud computing information collected from IoT systems can be combined with information from the traditional internet to created intelligent solutions across a wide range of domains. Such platforms will drive the development of highly innovative good and services.

Ireland needs to focus on the development of the middleware platforms that can develop a whole range of new products and services in multiple industries, he said.

“The strategy should be to use IoT as a way of enhancing our leadership in those areas where we have a natural advantage, such as agriculture and tourism, and areas where we want to retain international leadership, such as biopharma, ICT/internet and medical devices, as well as public services to minimise cost through efficient use of resources,” said Donnelly.

TSSG are leading the drive in Ireland, most of the world-leading ICT companies are based in Ireland and have significant operations and skills across compute endpoints, sensor devices, intelligent network transport, edge computing, cloud and data analytics – the end-to-end IoT ecosystem.

Device connectivity image via Shutterstock

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 23 March and again in Silicon Republic on 25 March 2014.