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The excitement about the Internet of Things (IoT) is understandable. The Internet as we know it today has transformed the world in just a quarter of a century. Yet extending it to billions of tiny, inexpensive sensors that continuously generate useful data will dramatically multiply the network’s power.
There are thousands of examples of applications of the IoT, but far fewer practical implementations. Most people have heard of the “smart refrigerator”—an IoT-connected fridge that can tell you it is out of milk via SMS because its internal camera has noticed there is none left, or that the carton is past its use-by date. But hardly anybody owns one.
However, some progress has been made where there is a financial imperative. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), by 2013 (the latest year for which numbers are available), U.S. electric utilities had installed 51,924,502 smart meters. Smart meters are Internet-connected, intelligent electricity-, gas-, or water-monitoring devices that supply precise usage information to utilities. Smart meters encapsulate the power of the IoT; real-time information is constantly communicated to powerful servers that analyze the data and make informed decisions. In this case, they enable electricity utilities to balance electricity supply and demand much more accurately than previously possible.
Such commercial inducements are vital if the IoT is to progress from hype to reality. Whereas the Internet was originally financed as a U.S. Department of Defense project, then as an academic and scientific tool, only later being made freely available for leveraging by commercial companies, the IoT will only grow if it can be used to make or save money.
Building a Common Infrastructure
The IoT is more than smart homes and connected appliances, though. A full-fledged system will include smart cities with infrastructure such as traffic monitoring that adjust signals to optimize traffic flow, or trash cans that signal when they need to be emptied, and industry with connected sensors monitoring everything from jet engines to crop irrigation.
Network-equipment maker Cisco Systems has described the IoT as the convergence of Internet Protocol (IP) networks—millions of computers and billions of other IP devices in the home and office—with mobile networks—millions of voice communications and billions of data packets from Internet-capable mobiles—to form a network of a trillion “end points,” using a common infrastructure.
That “common infrastructure” is perhaps the biggest challenge to the growth of the IoT. Without that commonality (in other words, standardization), there’s a danger of network fragmentation as commercial interests see manufacturers develop solutions that don’t easily play together. IoT technology must be based on open standards, because it’s been shown many times in different sectors that interoperability is a catalyst for rapid adoption.
Analysts say that of the up to 30 billion nodes to be shipped in the next decade, more than half will be for applications that as yet don’t exist. If this promise is to be realized, IoT players need to make it extremely easy for developers to focus on innovation by providing products that work “right out of the box,” instead of worrying about aligning protocols or getting gateways to communicate.
Bluetooth Smart is a good candidate for connecting many of the “things” making up the IoT. It’s a proven technology based on an open standard that’s purpose-designed for ultra-low-power wireless connectivity. And the advent of technologies such as IPv6-over-Bluetooth Smart make it possible to run IP on compact wireless sensors (“end nodes”), enabling an end-to-end solution based on the proven and mature architecture of the Internet.
IPv6-over-Bluetooth Smart enables a wireless sensor to connect directly to the Internet via a “headless” router (a cheap, “dumb” unit that simply relays IP packets from the sensor to cloud-based servers), rather than requiring the services of complex, expensive gateways to communicate.
This technology, along with other standard wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi and IEEE 802.15.4, will power a tsunami of change that will make the impact of today’s Internet seem like a ripple.