Hoping For Small Things (Lots of Them) In IoT

31 Aug 2018

While the hype machine appears to have moved on to other topics, Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow – though not necessarily in the way the magazines predicted. By those predictions by now we should have IoT equipped every electric meter, stoplight, household appliance and probably your dog, too. That’s the sort of letdown we expect when legions of untethered visionaries come into contact with the constraints of the real world. However, if we strip away the hype factor, IoT is progressing in a reasonable fashion, and it’s starting to open up to the creative forces that have reinvented the mobile world.

My upbeat assessment of IoT comes from the realization that what we call “IoT” has existed for a long time but only recently was graced with the catchy “IoT” label. My working definition of IoT (admittedly a work in progress) is:

The idea of building a network of physical objects ("things") embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and network connectivity, enabling them to collect and exchange data and potentially respond to commands from an application. 

In simpler terms, it's the idea of applying information technology to the real world as opposed to the "virtual world." Given the breadth of IoT applications that have been discussed, I prefer to refer to it as a design "idea" rather than a specific class of applications.

From my review of the various case studies on IoT, the vendors have relabeled telemetry, SCADA systems, remote meter reading, and even remote diagnostics as “IoT” applications – you should be immensely proud that the old dial-in maintenance port on your 1990s vintage PBX is now “IoT.”

In reality, the challenge with IoT is not the pool of potential applications, the networks or even the endpoint devices required, it’s the business case. With almost ubiquitous Wi-Fi coverage and cellular carriers rolling out Cat M1 and NB IoT services nationwide, the connectivity is there, so the issue is not what to connect, but more importantly, why?

I have identified four categories of IoT applications based on the type of end device they use:

  1. Smartphone-Based Applications: The smartphone, or more specifically a smartphone with an IoT-enabling application, is the most widely deployed IoT endpoint today. The majority of Americans have smartphones, and with their cellular and Wi-Fi networking and built-in accelerometers, GPS-based and other location technologies, and soon altimeters, smartphones are highly functional IoT endpoints. The next time you open Waze on your smartphone, you are entering the IoT game.
  2. Specialized (Often Embedded) Endpoints: These applications fit more into the model of IoT that most people recognize. Examples include systems like GM’s OnStar (and other auto manufacturers with similar offerings), Progressive Insurance's Snapshot and the many fleet management solutions that utilize devices that connect to a vehicle's On-Board Diagnostics (OBD) port. These too are advancing, though they are typically proprietary, single application solutions. The business case may be assisting stranded travelers, lowering your insurance rates or cost, safety and regulatory compliance or fleet operators; in each case there is a substantiated business case.
  3. Industrial IoT (I-IoT): One could argue that the growth in Industrial IoT (I-IoT) is what spurred public interest in the IoT space. Clearly, these applications are much farther along in terms of development. For decades, industrial engineers have been pioneering ways to incorporate technology into industrial operations. Whether it’s telemetry, remote control, computerized picking systems, intelligent package routing, vehicle scheduling or just about any other aspect of industrial operations, these people have been pushing it. This activity will continue as industrial engineers grasp the concept, recognize the potential benefits, and have decades of experience cost justifying things like this. If the networking industry delivers more efficient and cost effective services to enhance these efforts, these guys will be all over it, but I-IoT will continue to advance in any event.
  4. Grand Visionary Ideas: It is this last category that holds the greatest promise for changing how people live and work. Most industries will cringe at the idea that “Someone will come up with an idea for that,” but in the tech field, this is what we’ve come to expect. There’s been plenty of discussion of systems that monitor traffic flows and adjust stoplights to minimize idling or extensive monitoring systems that look to smooth peak power demand. Those macro solutions will develop over time, but I think there will be a lot of small scale IoT initiatives that will also appear.

One of the most interesting devices for this micro-IoT revolution is Amazon’s IoT Button. AT&T is marketing the same device in conjunction with its IoT network services as the M-Button. The idea seems to be modeled on Staples Easy Button. AT&T is actually marketing the M-Button for $29.99 with 1,500 clicks on its LTE-M Cat M1 IoT network service.

I’m not at all sure what kind of service you could craft around a gadget that is essentially a one-trick pony. Amazon describes the IoT Button as being able to process single-click, double-click and press-and-hold commands. I guess you could use it to order lunch, but you’d have to eat the same thing every day.

I did find one very interesting application described in the Wall Street Journal – complaining about airplane noise. Chris McCann, a former Air Force test pilot and computer programmer from La Jolla, CA, created the Airnoise Button, that automated the process of filing airport noise complaints using Amazon’s IoT Button.

While I’ve never filed a noise complaint (though I live in the flight path to New York’s JFK Airport), the process is rather arduous and requires filling out a form like this. Mr. McCann’s idea was to use an IoT Button to automate the complaint process. The button is customized to your address so that when it’s pressed, a cloud-based service searches a database of flights to determine what plane is flying over your house, automatically completes the complaint form and files it with the responsible authority.

Apparently it’s having an impact. While only 279 people currently possess Airnoise Buttons, so far they have filed 226,366 noise objections in 10 cities. This surge in noise complaints has not gone unnoticed. Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport saw its noise complaints jump from 2,000 per year to over 2,000 a week!

I don’t know if further enabling chronic complainers is a good thing, but it certainly is a “thing.” Mr. McCann’s solution to correlating the particular flight with the IoT Button’s address is elegant, we probably don’t need anything nearly that involved to be successful.

While we all wait patiently for grand (and expensive) IoT implementations, I think we may see a lot more small scale solutions based on smartphones and things like the IoT Button in the run up to that.


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