It seems likely that the number of servers on the Internet – those large computers that serve up websites – will exceed one billion sometime this year. What’s more, this is dwarfed by the six billion devices – from PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets – that access this wealth of information. Huge as these figures might be, though, experts are suggesting that both will pale into insignificance by the number of “things” that are increasingly appearing online.
Estimates suggest there’ll be 10 billion such things in 2018, that’s 1.3 for each person on the Earth, rising to 26 billion in 2020. What’s more, unlike those six billion computers that mainly access information provided by others, all these things will be generating information. Here we delve into the so-called Internet of Things to discover what’s available today and what it might provide in the future.
The Internet of Things: Things of Old
While the term “Internet of Things” is only a few years old and still isn’t in everyday parlance, the idea of connecting devices other than computers to the internet is by no means new. It’s commonly said that a coffee pot at Cambridge University was the first everyday object to be featured on the Web. In reality, though, it wasn’t really the coffee pot that was put on the web back in 1991 but an image of the coffee pot via the world’s first webcam.
Its purpose was to prevent people having wasted journeys when there was no coffee available. Some of the earliest things other than cameras to turn up on the Web, all back in the 90s, were a model railway at the University of Ulm in Germany, the so-called Telegarden at the University of Southern California that could be watered and cared for online, and a light display in a Japanese shopping centre. In each case, the Web interface allowed the hardware to be controlled remotely while a camera allowed you to see the result of your actions.
All of these web robotic projects were impressive demonstrations of what could be done when the web had still to become the universal resource it is today. Such projects are still around in the 21st century, even though they tend to come and go fairly quickly, but they are really just for fun of for learning about tele-robotics. In the main, though, the Internet of Things is becoming much more down-to-earth in providing data that will benefits us all.
The Internet of Things: Ubiquitous Sensors
Although it uses the sensors that are present in smartphones, rather than tiny sensors in their own right, an example of a project that was completed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena will show how an Internet of Things, that is constantly monitoring the world around us, could bring major gains.
The city of Pasadena is located near the infamous San Andreas Fault which means that it’s at risk from earthquakes. Seismic activity that occurs before such events is detected using instruments called seismometers, that are designed to be highly sensitive to movements in the earth while not being unduly affected by other sources of motion such traffic. The number of seismometers is limited due to their cost so the Southern California Seismic Network operates just 350 seismic stations and the Northern California Seismic Network has further 412. The California Institute of Technology’s opt-in Community Seismic Network, on the other hand, uses the vastly greater number of sensors, specifically the accelerometers that are fitted in most smartphones.
According to the project’s Matthew Faulkner, if only 1 percent of users in the area opted into the scheme, that few hundred seismometers would be augmented by several hundred thousand additional sensors. Certainly they’re no bolted to the bedrock, as are seismometers, but Faulkner explained how their susceptibility to irrelevant motion and their often far-from-ideal positioning, can be compensated for by their huge numbers, given sufficiently intelligent processing. The benefits are huge as he went on to explain. “A dense, city-wide seismic network could be used to detect earthquakes rapidly after they start, and measure the strength of shaking accurately as they unfold. For the community, this could mean making automated responses to prevent damage, like stopping trains and elevators, stabilizing the power grid, and notifying emergency teams like fire-fighters about how the shaking occurred. We may be able to use sensor data from within high-rise buildings to estimate structural damage, allowing responses and structural repairs to be prioritized.”
The Internet of Things: The Environmental Advantage
As part of the government’s drive to reduce the nation’s energy consumption and hence the amount of greenhouse gasses produced, electricity and gas suppliers are rolling out smart meters across the country. Due to be completed by 2020, the move to smart meters will bring some substantial changes. Perhaps most obviously, smart metres will communicate directly with the energy companies so we won’t have to provide manual meter readings, nor will the utility companies have to send out staff to reads our meters. Instead, the meters will send back data on how much energy we’ve used in each half hour period.
The metres themselves won’t necessarily be connected to the Internet but, because of the philosophy that information is a key to persuading consumers to use energy more sensibly and more economically, we’ll each by able to view graphs and summaries of our energy consumption online. To all intents and purposes, therefore, our meters will be online. For those who want to better understand how their electricity has been used, British company Navetas has developed a means for carrying out signal processing to calculate the energy consumption for each appliance. Again the data is available online.
Smart metering, and even Navetas’ application-specific metering, relies on nothing any more sophisticated than the ordinary appliances we have around the home. However, even greater energy savings could be made available with smart appliances that would be able to switch on when the smart meter told it that the energy was cheapest, and even allow remote control via the web.
It might be a while before the average washing machine or oven is web-enabled, but already British Gas is promoting their Hive system for remotely controlling central heating. By having more control over your heating, and being able to delay the system from switching on if you’re going to be returning late from work for example, British Gas suggest that you could save up to £150 per year. Much smaller and cheaper appliances are become web-enabled too with a spate of smart light bulbs having appeared over the last year or so. While some of those only have Bluetooth connectivity, and can therefore only be controlled from nearby using a smartphone and appropriate app, products from LIFX have WiFi connectivity, allowing them to be dimmed, and even colour adjusted, both locally and via the web.
The Internet of Things:The Need to Downscale
Online light bulbs might be something of an eye opener but to achieve anything like the huge number of Internet-connected devices over the next few years, those things are going to need to be a lot cheaper than LIFX’s rather expensive multi-coloured light bulb. One company who is keen to help the Internet of Things become a reality is the UK’s leading processor designer ARM Holdings. Although, some of the company’s cores are powerful enough to be used in top-end servers and even super-computers, at the other end of the spectrum the range includes products that are small enough and cheap enough to enable the Internet of Things as never before.
The core that takes centre stage here is the Cortex-M which Ian Ferguson, ARM’s VP Segment Marketing, anticipates being used virtually everywhere because of its ultra-low power consumption. Because ARM doesn’t manufacture chips, choosing instead to licence its technology to semiconductor manufacturers, he illustrated the point by referring to a 32-bit processor core that’s manufactured by Freescale Semiconductor, which fits inside the dimple of a golf ball and consumes just 50mW of power. In fact, he mentioned chips that consume even lower levels of power so they can be used in equipment that doesn’t contain batteries and is powered by harvesting the energy from the environment, perhaps in the form of vibrations, sunlight or heat. What’s more, some processors based on the Cortex-M core sell for less than 30p each in large volumes. With this sort of technology, Ian sees no limit to the sort of devices that will ultimately become intelligent and which could, conceivably, be connected to the Internet. “We expect the technology to be embedded into a wide range of existing, everyday objects – even inside our bodies – that will improve all aspects of our lives including health, simplifying daily chores, education, and communication”, he told us.
Hands on the Internet of Things
If you want to get a feel for some of the things already on the web, why don’t you take a look at http://thingful.net. Although the site offers little in the way of explanation, it provides a geographical interface allowing you to view connected things anywhere in the world and clicking on one of those thing allows you to discover more about it. Commonly, the things are sensors of various types including weather stations, navigation buoys, environmental monitors and smart energy meters. You can choose to view only those things in certain categories – namely energy, home, health, environment, flora & fauna, transport, experimental or miscellaneous – or get it to zoom in to show you what things are in your neck of the woods. Hardly surprisingly, looking around Silicon Valley provides lots of interest – we even found a pack of sensors monitoring a wine cellar.