The “Internet of Things” is being talked about on the news and in advertising. And the IoT is having an ever-increasing impact on everything—from the way we travel to the way we shop to the way we turn lights and alarms on and off. But exactly what is the Internet of Things (IoT)? Moreover, how does it work and why does it matter?
And do we really need to be concerned with the IoT?
What the IoT is
The IoT is a giant network of connected things and people—all of which collect and share data about the way they are used and about the environment around them. That includes an extraordinary number of things (all shapes, sizes and usages)—smart microwaves that automatically cook your food for the right length of time, self-driving cars with complex sensors that detect objects in their path, and wearable fitness devices that measure your heart rate and the number of steps you’ve taken that day, just to name a few.
The IoT promises to make our environment—our homes, offices and vehicles—smarter and more measurable. (And, as a result, more vulnerable to cyberattack.)
Smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home make it easier to play music, set timers or get information. Home security systems make it easier to monitor what’s going on inside and outside, or to see and talk to visitors.
Meanwhile, smart thermostats help us heat our homes before we come home from a day at work, and smart lightbulbs can make it look like we’re home even when we’re not.
Some larger objects may also be filled with many smaller IoT components, such as jet engines that are filled with thousands of sensors that collect and transmit data to ensure efficient operation.
On an even bigger scale, cities are filling entire regions with sensors to enable them to better understand and control their environment.
How did the IoT come about?
The idea of adding sensors and intelligence to basic objects was discussed throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but progress was slow. Kevin Ashton coined the phrase “Internet of Things” in 1999, but it took at least another decade for technology to catch up with the vision. The reason why is that, at the time, chips were too big and bulky. And there was no way for objects to communicate effectively.
Processors that were cheap and power “frugal” enough to be all but disposable were needed before it finally became cost-effective to connect billions of devices.
The adoption of RFID tags—low-power chips that can communicate wirelessly—solved some of this issue. Further advancements came with the increasing availability of broadband internet access and cellular and wireless networking.
And then the adoption of IPv6 (which, among other things, should provide enough IP addresses for every device that will ever exist on this planet) was also necessary for scaling the IoT.
How does the IoT work?
Devices and objects with built-in sensors are connected to an IoT platform, which integrates data from devices and applies analytics to share the most valuable information with applications built to address specific needs.
These powerful IoT platforms can pinpoint exactly what information is useful and what can safely be ignored. This information can be used to detect patterns, make recommendations and detect possible problems before they occur.
For example, if you own an automobile manufacturing business, you might want to know which optional components (leather seats or alloy wheels, for example) are the most popular. Using Internet of Things technology, you can:
- Drill down into the available sales data to identify which components are selling the most quickly; and
- Automatically align sales data with supply so that popular items don’t go out of stock.
How big is the IoT?
Tech analyst IDC predicts that in total there will be 41.6 billion connected IoT devices by 2025. Moreover, they suggest that industrial and automotive equipment will represent the largest opportunity of connected “things.” But IDC also sees strong adoption of smart home and wearable devices in the near term.
Utilities will be the highest user of IoT, thanks to the continuing rollout of smart meters. Security devices, in the form of intruder detection and web cameras, will be the second-biggest use of IoT.
Building automation—like connected lighting—will be the fastest-growing sector, followed by automotive (connected cars) and healthcare (monitoring of chronic conditions).
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or “the fourth industrial revolution” (a/k/a Industry 4.0) are names given to the use of IoT technology in business settings. The concept is the same as for consumer IoT devices in the home, but in a business or industrial setting, the aim is to use a combination of sensors, wireless networks, big data, AI and analytics to measure and optimize industrial processes.
If introduced across an entire supply chain rather than just within individual companies, the impact could be even greater, with just-in-time delivery of materials and the management of production. Increasing workforce productivity or cost savings are two potential goals, but the IIoT can also create new revenue streams for businesses.
Furthermore, rather than just selling a standalone product—for example, a machine—manufacturers can also sell predictive maintenance of the machine.
A practical example: IoT in transport
Imagine you’re driving to work and the engine light comes on. You’d rather not head straight to your mechanic or the car dealership’s service center, but what if it’s something urgent?
In an IoT connected vehicle, the sensor that triggered the “check engine” light would communicate with other sensors in the vehicle. A component called the diagnostic bus would then collect data from these sensors and pass it to a gateway in the vehicle, which would then send the most relevant information to the manufacturer’s platform.
The manufacturer could then use data from the vehicle to offer you an appointment to get the problem fixed, could send you directions to the nearest dealer, and could even ensure that the correct replacement part is ordered and ready when you arrive for the appointment.
Is the IoT secure?
Security is one the biggest issues with the IoT. In many cases, the sensors collect extremely sensitive data—what you say and do in your own home, for example. Keeping that data secure is vital to consumer trust, but, so far, the IoT’s security track record has not been good. Flaws have left smart home devices like refrigerators, ovens, and dishwashers open to hackers.
Researchers have found 100,000 webcams that could be hacked with ease, while some internet-connected smartwatches for children have been found to contain security vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities enable hackers to track the child’s location, eavesdrop on conversations or even communicate with the child. It’s a frightening—and potentially deadly—scenario.
In business, the stakes are equally high. Connecting industrial machinery to IoT networks increases the potential risk that these devices will be discovered and breached by hackers. Industrial espionage or a destructive attack on critical infrastructure are critical risks. Businesses will need to ensure that networks are isolated and protected. As a result, data encryption and security of sensors, gateways and other components will need to become a top IT priority.