The world as a sensor - Coupler of ‘big data’

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In 2020, between 26 and 50 billion devices are expected to be connected with each other through the internet, for a global population of more than 7 billion people. From smart TVs that automatically show your favorite programs, to buildings that can optimize their own energy consumption and can even feed back energy. 

Article from Objective 23, 2015

Ten years of development

Even a few years ago it was unthinkable that devices would be able to communicate with each other; nowadays being connected (wirelessly) is the most natural thing in the world. No child nowadays is going to be surprised if you pause a movie on a smart TV so you can continue watching it on a tablet in the car. And fridges that send their own orders to the supermarket as soon as certain products have run out may be a new phenomenon, but even they aren’t that extraordinary anymore. The services necessary to process such orders and deliver the products are also on the rise.

Internet of Things

Businesses are increasingly using the Internet of Things (IoT): the network of objects (things) equipped with technology that are able to cooperate within the existing internet infrastructure. This network exchanges data with producers, users and/or other connected devices. The possibilities are increasingly shifting towards developments surrounding products. Wearables, for instance, such as garments or plasters with sensors linked to a smartphone. Handy for runners who can use them to monitor their heart rate, body temperature and the distance run. Or to get an idea of the condition of an elderly person or patient in need of care. Handy also for the organizations involved (suppliers, institutions), because it gives them access to data that is relevant to them. In this manner, the IoT produces an enormous reservoir of information.

Growing big data

This information, so-called ‘big data’, is playing an increasingly important role. And this even more so as sensors become cheaper and computing power grows. In addition to constant attention to privacy and security, issues such as using it as an earnings model and questions such as what (amount of) data is required, are coming to the forefront of attention. Computers are faster and better able to connect the various data to each other and to spot trends. By combining data in a smart way and by interpreting/translating it, new insights emerge that can be applied to new services, applications and even new markets.

Get more from a sensor

A good example is fire detection for businesses. Existing smoke alarms detect fire on the basis of smoke particles. But that means the fire is already there! By using affordable extra sensors that can detect possible sources of fire in another way (including optically, distortion, temperature) the detector can respond preventively to changes and, in the case of abnormalities, can automatically send a warning to a control room. Having a network of sensors increases the chance of early risk detection. Of course this is perfectly suitable for the consumer market. Sensors can even be added to plugs. Smart plugs can immediately send a signal to the user when the connected device is responding in an irregular way. Several smart plugs together can form a sensor network. This kind of new network puts the use of systems or devices in relation to fire prevention and safety in a new perspective. But also climate control and lighting, for instance.

Robust and finely meshed network

As the production costs of sensors decrease, their measuring and warning capacity increases, and better use can be made of the data collected, infrastructural applications are coming within commercial reach. For instance in relation to buildings, bridges, power and water pumping stations. And to gas, power and water pipelines. Or by mixing large numbers of cheap sensors through the tarmac when building a road. This would create a robust, finely meshed network that permanently feeds back information: real-time data about use, traffic intensity, cracks and wear and tear. The connected systems can even regulate the lighting on the street using this data. Or indicate where maintenance is necessary. This increases the life cycle of these objects or roads, because preventive maintenance works can be planned more accurately.

Value chain 

The further integration of the IoT changes the relationship between the parties involved: in addition to the company or the consumer, the insurer or manager now also has a stake. This new value-chain thinking leads to new partnerships or even to changes of ownership. For instance, an insurer’s stake can be so significant that he decides to bear the costs of a preventative sensor network. Or insurance premiums may go up in the future if you don’t have sensors that are able to detect risks at an early stage. For the manager, applying – and therefore investing in – this kind of risk-oriented maintenance creates a higher margin and a competitive advantage.

Getting a return by making the right choices

The question remains whether these investments – that will still be considerable – will deliver a sufficient return. It will therefore become crucial to involve specialists who have knowledge of the field: a capable supplier and integrator of technological solutions helps the client to make choices that will deliver a return. For instance when it comes to determining factors such as sensor planning, radio communication planning, installation, management and maintenance. Ensuring that the effective and efficient data flows from local sensors are carefully adapted to the central computing power. This makes a difference in terms of life span and energy consumption. Appropriate (tailor-made) software subsequently helps to get the highest possible results from the collected data by processing it optimally.

Systems of systems

The importance only grows if we realize that in the near future the different small, smart, digital ecosystems will be interacting with each other. There is the risk of a data tsunami in this world of ‘systems of systems’. Take for instance an electric car whose various smart parts communicate with each other so that it can be operated optimally. The vehicle then connects with the smart road, which processes data about lanes, traffic intensity and the weather into an optimal profile. This is then fed back to a navigation system that takes the user’s diary into account, the travel time and the battery capacity of the car. All these data flows require a lot of data bandwidth, unless the designers of the various parts have made the right choices about which data to transmit and process.

Embrace

During the coming years, ever more smart sensors will be connected to each other, so that new developments such as automatic access to buildings or individualized offers in the shopping street will become standard. How the different systems will work together in practice, what new business models will play a role in this and what will happen to the privacy of the data, depends on the rate at which the technology of the IoT is embraced in the different fields. The trend is already there. The question at the moment is: how do you use this trend to get the most out of it for your company, clients and business, and which partners are going to help you do this?

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