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The Internet of things
26 June 2012
Monday morning and you’re in a hurry. On your way out, you check your pockets. Money. Mobile. Where are the car keys? A quick text message, and the keys let you know that they are under the papers on the dining table.
This everyday example is quite trivial, and doesn’t really reflect the grand vision conjured up for experts by the term ‘The Internet of Things’ (IoT). However, it does give us some indication – the Internet of Things involves the technology we use when the things around us are talking to each other.
The chips and sensors that identify these things also enable them to ‘talk’ to each other, or talk via the Internet and thus share and transfer information to the rest of the world.
The fridge can tell you that a chicken fillet is on the verge if its expiry date. Your electric car can transfer power back to the grid so that it doesn’t become overcharged, and if you have a chronic illness, you can be medically monitored and cared for via wireless sensor systems. We will soon have smart houses, smart traffic and smart health.
Technology optimists claim that IoT technology will be the vital missing link enabling us to meet the major challenges associated with climate change, energy efficiency, mobility and future health services. The new technology will also create new products, new services, new interfaces and new applications.
One of today’s future researchers, Dave Evans of the American IT company Cisco, claims that there are about ten billion units connected to the web today, and that this will have increased by five times in 2020. ‘We will be connecting devices to the Internet that we don’t think about very much today. Our house, asthma inhaler, maybe our shoes – perhaps even trees...’ he tells the magazine Teknisk Ukeblad.
SINTEF’s Chief Scientist, Ovidiu Vermesan, is working on both the Internet of Things and The Internet of Energy as part of several major EU projects. The first of these ambitions involves the electric car and what will be known as the smart house, in which products and services providing notifications, security, energy-saving, automation, telecommunication, computers and entertainment will be integrated into a single system with a shared user interface.
Vermesan thinks that we have to be visionary if we are to achieve these impossible targets.
‘Obviously, not everything will be in place straight away. But we are developing the technology in Europe right now – demonstrating, testing and developing products – and by 2020 or 2030 we will be much nearer our target.’
‘And how will all these products manage to talk to each other?’
‘The ‘language’ will be based on a type of protocol, similar to the built-in formula that enables our mobile phones to talk using WiFi, ISA100, ZigBee or BlueTooth.’
‘But will everything really be able to talk to everything else? Or will equipment in the energy sector only be able to talk to other energy-related equipment? Will devices in the health service be able to communicate internally, and so on? In other words, is IoT more of a concept than something that can become a reality?’
‘IoT is a generic term for all of the devices and ‘things’ that can perform a service and that we want to be available on the Internet. Several of the things you mention can connect and share information with each other, but not all of them want to make the information available – such as banks. Obviously, they want to make sure that only you can have access to your personal information via your mobile or computer.’
Communication in the health services
In the same way as we put ID chips on products, we can attach sensors to ourselves and allow them to communicate via the Web to other objects around us.
The health service is currently testing sensors on elderly patients living at home. The sensors can monitor pulse and blood pressure. The measurements can be read by the patients themselves and communicated onward to a central location via their mobiles. This is a simple form of communication that does not involve the Web.
In the future however, technology optimists envisage a completely different flow of information, in which the IoT will be able to set up not only the system architecture but also the rules governing security and the flow of information.
PhD Inge Krogstad, Senior Adviser at Nordic CoE Health Care at the IT company SAS Institute, is working on a national network for the Internet of Things in Norway. He describes his scenario for the Internet of Things within the health service like this:
‘In the morning the ‘system’ looks up that day’s surgery schedule in the activity calendar and while it is checking the day’s operations, it also checks traffic information on the patients’ routes to the hospital. It optimises their routes, so that the last patient will be finished at 15:00, since it is Friday. If there is a lot of traffic and poor driving conditions, the system revises the rota, sends ‘extra rota’ text messages to another two employees, simultaneously adjusting the time the alarm clocks of that day’s team will go off. It streams key data about the day’s first two operations to the three employees’ media devices (car radio, smart phone, PDA) as they travel to work, at the same time as it tells the patients that the schedule has been changed because an employee is sick, while it relocates all the resources in order to meet the revised schedule.’
Interpretation models needed
Frode Strisland at SINTEF is conducting research into small, portable wireless medical sensor systems that patients will be able to operate in their own homes. For example, many chronically ill patients will benefit greatly from being able to understand and follow up their own illness together with their doctor. Many other elderly and chronically ill patients are grateful for the sensor technology that makes life safer for them – for example by sending an alarm if a patient has a fall.
He thinks that IoT is important, and will soon be offering many opportunities within the field of medical follow up. However, he emphasises that medical information is private and must not fall into the wrong hands. Nor will an IoT be of much use if it allows all the information in the world to flow around on the Web, without anyone developing good models that can explain and interpret that information.
‘It would be like the Meteorological Institute only having a network of measuring stations, but no interpretation models that could analyse the situation and make prognoses,’ he says.
‘IoT will provide many opportunities for us to medically monitor chronic patients in the future, but it will be important for us to choose measuring methods that provide sound answers – and work on developing interpretation models adapted to the patients as individuals, each with their own illnesses.
Most things involve energy
Ovidiu Vermesan can understand that the new technology is hard to grasp. He is coordinating the EU Internet of Energy (IoE) project and working with 40 European partners on how to make it easier for energy suppliers and consumers to interconnect with each others’ equipment.
Major changes in the energy sector in recent years mean that the need for smart, flexible energy is increasing, and that energy production and storage facilities will have to become more coordinated.
Current methods mean that our electricity is supplied by large, commercial energy companies from coal, gas and nuclear power stations.
So far, these centrally controlled systems have not needed to communicate much with the outside world. In the future, however, distributed energy sources provided by multiple suppliers will take over. These sources will come from renewable energy such as hydro, wind and solar.
So according to Vermesan, production will be dictated by access to resources, which will in turn depend on solar intensity, wind strength or water flow. For instance, energy companies will have access to a lot of wind energy at certain times, when users will be able to benefit by disconnecting from other energy sources and only using wind energy. Energy will be a fresh commodity.
The new power grid
In the future power grid, known as the Smart Grid, every facility and device will have its own IP address so that it can be monitored and controlled via the Internet.
As consumers we will be among the first proponents of the future grid, via the new Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) technology that will be installed in our homes over the next few years. This will enable us not only to understand but also control our consumption better. For instance, we can see right now that electricity is actually so expensive that it will save us money to wait a while before switching on the washing machine. And perhaps we should also turn off the hot water boiler for a few hours?
¬According to Vermesan, the new grid will also be a two-way system. If you have more energy than you can use, you can sell it to the grid. This means that small energy producers, urban districts with energy-plus houses that produce more electricity than they consume, and motorists with electric cars that are part of a cooperative scheme can feed energy to the grid and act as energy companies, alongside the likes of Hafslund and NorgesEnergi.
‘We will be able to move energy across the grid in the same way as we now move data,’ he says.
‘Yes.’ Using the Internet, you will be able to control where energy is delivered by identifying yourself, your location and what type of energy you need – all made possible via two-way communication and roaming, as with mobile phones.
Electric cars that communicate
Electric cars will be able to connect to the smart future grid. Each car will contain a unique identifying SIM/MIM card, like the card in your mobile.
‘Charging points for electric cars currently only have one socket, which is used for charging. In the future, they will also have a communication socket that will transfer information. In this project are working on developing a smart charger – so that when a car is plugged into the socket, it will be possible to see what type of car it is, what sort of battery it has, and how fast it should be charged – for three hours, six hours or half an hour,’ Vermesan tells us.
When electric cars charge using traditional outlets, or when several cars are charging at the same time, this can result in grid overloads. But when electric cars can communicate with the grid, energy can be distributed in a much smarter way, reducing the risk of overloads.
Vermesan claims that this can make the grid more stable, since fully-charged electric cars can supply a certain amount of energy back to the grid to cover short-term peak loads.
The Internet of Traffic
When vehicles and road infrastructure come online and communicate with each other, the range of opportunities will be enormous. When your car is connected to the Internet of Traffic, you will be able to receive information about everything that is happening around you. How many other cars are on the road? Which is the quickest route, taking traffic into account, and how fast should you drive if you want the next traffic light to be on green?
If there is a problem with the road surface, or if weather conditions have resulted in poor driving conditions, cars will automatically communicate this to each other and to the agency responsible for the road, so that the problem can be sorted out quickly.
The work of getting traffic onto the Internet is well under way, and a number of applications are in the development phase. These will be useful for car-to-car and car-to-kerb communication.
The WiseCar project – which is about intelligent cars – has involved a number of Norwegian companies who have come up with various new products: Norsk Navigasjon’s ‘Waste Management’ product is offering the opportunity to administer and manage waste collection. Triona AS has developed Norway’s first system of automatic speed adaptation, (Intelligent Speed Adaptation), and SINTEF has been testing out vehicle-to-vehicle communication services, in which long-distance lorry drivers can notify each other about incidents on the road via display screens on their dashboards. The system has been tested out on the Oslo–Trondheim route.
Air traffic will also undergo changes. Up to five old systems are now being replaced in order to prevent future chaos in European airspace. Air traffic across the whole of Europe will have to be reorganised if it is to meet the challenges of the future, and instead of pilots communicating verbally with air traffic controllers, the information will be digital, and stored in an ‘Internet cloud’, says researcher Jan Erik Håkegård of SINTEF.
What will all this require?
All of the scenarios and plans linked to the Internet of Things sound fascinating. However, it is bound to cross many people's minds that this inter-connection of large volumes of data from all these different fields will inevitably create problems and challenges. That is why it is also important to plan ahead, and put in place the processes necessary if we are to extract the information generated when computers and systems start talking to each other.
SINTEF ICT is working on setting up two-way communication between vehicles and infrastructure, and is looking at how a new charger can transfer energy from the grid to the vehicle, and from the vehicle back to the grid. They are working on standardising the design of the socket, developing communication between car and infrastructure, and on how users will be able to receive this information.
‘If we are to access energy and data through the same channel, we not only need miniaturisation but also new semi-conductor technology,’ says Ovidiu Vermesan.
‘This will require an infrastructure with energy ports, i.e. connection points like those we use when we physically connect a computer to the network via a cable. We will have to have electrical charging points, Smart Grids and fast-charging stations. This infrastructure will have to be able to connect all the power electronics, integrated circuits, sensors, processors, algorithms and software.
‘Charging points for fast charging, what does that mean?’
‘We will need charging points that can charge an electric car in less than half an hour, which means a much higher power output than we have now. An entire house, with its electric wall heaters, cooker hob, washing machine and so on, is capable of using an average of about 10–25 kilowatts of power.
A fast charging point will have to supply 50–80 kilowatts. The solution could be to store and distribute energy from large battery banks, and two major firms in the UK and Germany are working on this type of pack. ABB and Siemens Infineon are among the companies putting this technology into practice.
Inge Krogstad of SAS Institute also brings up another challenge that is complicating the way forward for the Internet of Things – the volume of textual information. In an area such as health, we find incredible amounts of unstructured data such as notes and reports. Studies show that as much as 80 per cent of data in the health sector could be unstructured, and that the volume is increasing by 60 per cent each year!
Data protection and security
When systems interact, the security of each system must be reliable. We will become more conscious about data protection. For example, who should have access to the information, and how do we ensure that it is secure, yet still available to the person who needs it?
Thomas Nortvedt of the Norwegian Consumer Council is the European representative on the ‘Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue’ forum. When Gemini phoned him, he was reading a resolution about IoT.
‘We think that this technology is exciting,’ he says. ‘However, it is very clear that we will have to safeguard data protection as this technology develops. We have had Web 1.0, which was about entertainment, and Web 2.0, which had a social agenda.
Now we are well into Web 3.0, which we can describe as a semantic and personal Internet. Most of what consumers do on the Internet is personal – just like when I go jogging with my phone, where I have downloaded a program telling me about time, calorie consumption and speed, etc. All my jogging runs are stored on this service’s website, but obviously they are only of interest to me. My telephone must be connected to the internet for me to use this service, but that also makes it open for other people.
`The same thing applies to the new electricity meters that will soon be installed in Norwegian homes,’ Nortvedt tells us. Norwegians are in favour of the service, since we think that the environment and saving energy are important. Americans, on the other hand, are sceptical: ‘Are the energy companies going to see inside my fridge?!’ With a box on the wall, information will flow both ways, but exactly what data will go out?
‘Norwegian engineers believe that there may be no need for data to go out, and I hope they’re right,’ says Nortvedt. He is more concerned that a company like Google now has 60 of its services in one big pool, and is thereby getting a completely different picture of its users than before.
‘We must put some mechanisms in place that give users much more ownership of these data,’ says Nortvedt. ‘If the Internet of Things is to work properly, it is important that we also develop it as an ‘Internet for People’. That means establishing principles such as user control and clear rules of responsibility.
One positive feature of the Internet of the future is that it could be useful in dramatic situations, such as after a natural disaster or during an armed conflict. Since it will be made up of a number of networks of computers sending information to each other, the Web could prove to be vital in areas where infrastructure has been destroyed. It will be possible to send sound, images and other information from the scene of an accident, without being connected to an official network. That could save valuable time and help save lives.
The illustration shows the flow of energy and communication in the IoE concept. The solar panel is providing energy for the house’s heating and electrical components, and can charge the electric car. If the car is fully charged, it can supply the grid with a certain amount of energy that can be used to cover short-term peak loads. (ill.: Knut Gangåssæter)
If you have charged your electric car at home overnight and arrive at the supermarket with a fully charged battery on Saturday morning, you can drive into the parking spot indicated, and choose whether to sell 30–40 per cent of your energy to the supermarket at a higher price – and this could be used to pay your parking fee, for lighting in the underground car park or transfer to the grid.