Connecting our world in real-time: the Internet of Things

Internet of things graphic on blue background

May 10, 2023

Confronting modern, real-world challenges – from the climate crisis to population health to pollution – requires innovative solutions. These solutions are required on local, national and global scales, and span both the personal and professional lives of our global population.

One tool that can help us develop solutions to these challenges is the information and insights we can derive from large-scale data. Devices and objects that are integral to, and embedded in, our everyday lives – and that encompass the breadth of our industries, geographical locations and diverse communities – are rich sources of important, actionable data. Smart cars, fitness trackers, home security systems, Apple watches and Amazon’s Echo – all are collecting and producing data on mammoth scales.

What do all of these technologies have in common? The answer: the Internet of Things (IoT).

What is the Internet of Things?

IBM defines the IoT as ‘the concept of connecting any device that has an on/off switch to the Internet and other connected devices’. A term first coined by British technology pioneer, Kevin Ashton, the IoT comprises a vast wireless network of connected electronic devices and people that enables the large-scale collection and sharing of information – both of the way in which devices are used and how they and their users interact with their environments. The everyday, physical objects – from watches to thermostats to vehicles – that make up this ecosystem are known as smart devices, connected via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

How does the IoT work?

In an IoT system, IoT sensors and devices communicate and connect with the cloud. Data that is shared with the cloud undergoes certain software processes to identify if an action is required. For example, the user or wearer of a device may need to receive a push notification, such as a Fitbit reminding a user to increase their step count, or a sensor or device may automatically adjust itself without use involvement, such as a smart heating system turning the thermostat up when the temperature drops below a certain level or a smartphone switching to low-power mode.

Users may also wish to make inputs or check certain information on a smart device, via a user interface. In these cases, IoT data is transferred from the interface to the cloud and then back to the sensor or device.

While those processes require connectivity, it’s also possible for devices to process data via gateways or within the device itself. This is known as edge computing or fog computing. To use an automotive example, connected cars will process all the data within onboard computer systems in order to make quick decisions.

What are the benefits of the IoT?

The IoT has the power to transform our world for the better. Billions of connected devices make it possible to collect extensive big data sets, allowing us to learn more about how people live and how their lives could be improved. Air pollution is being tackled and drastically reduced in cities across the world. Food production and supply can be optimised through smart farming to feed global populations. Our interconnected world also helps health experts to detect and contain dangerous diseases and viruses.

While IoT devices typically relate to end-users and consumers, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) refers to using the same connectivity for industrial IoT means, such as supply chain management, manufacturing and monitoring.

The World Economic Forum highlight a handful of use cases where IoT and IIoT technology is revolutionising our world and the ways in which we live:

  • Smart cities. Urban life is increasingly being transformed by a variety of technologies, many of which are designed to make our cities cleaner, safer and more sustainable. Examples include: energy-efficient buildings, convenient and fast transportation systems, remote-controlled irrigation of green areas, smart parking meters, air quality trackers, traffic filtration, parking availability and automated street lighting.
  • Smarter agriculture. The IoT is supporting farmers all over the world with its capabilities, including: tracking cropland microclimates, monitoring humidity, temperature and moisture levels, drone imagery, soil sensors and smart agri-machinery. Such measures help to reduce food waste and consumption of fertilisers and water, all without impacting the volume and quantity of yield.
  • Patient care. IoT sensors, devices and processes are pivotal to the function, quality and possibilities of the healthcare sector, helping to make our services safer, more accessible, more affordable, and of higher quality. Quicker, easier biometric assessments, access to patient information, and data collection are all made possible. Examples include health monitoring technologies such as wearable blood pressure and heart rate monitors that help doctors to manage patient health remotely, and embedded sensors that track changes in tissue over time that support the detection of breast cancer.

More generally, IoT technology brings with it a whole host of other benefits and uses:

  • cost reductions and savings
  • increased operational efficiencies
  • advanced data analytics and data-led insights to support decision-making processes
  • prescriptive and predictive maintenance and insights
  • real-time data, visibility and management of assets and resources
  • end-to-end remote monitoring
  • improved end-user experience.

How is the IoT used in the home environment?

IoT electronic devices are deeply embedded in our daily lives. As we have smart cities, so we have smart homes.

For most of us, the most ubiquitous example of an IoT device we use daily is the smartphone in our pocket. However, home IoT devices are increasingly popular, with the home automation market predicted to grow to $106.6 billion by 2028.

Common examples of IoT devices and IoT applications in our homes include:

  • Motion detection and keyless entry, such as Ring doorbells and security systems
  • Energy management, such as solar panels, lighting controls, smart refrigerators, thermostats and household appliances
  • Health and wellbeing monitoring, such as smart watches, step counters and other wearable fitness tech
  • Virtual personal assistants, such as Amazon’s Alexa
  • Controlled irrigation, such as timed sprinkler systems.

Domestic IoT technologies help to reduce environmental impact, optimise spending, allow for greater control and monitoring, increase our personal comfort and enhance security.

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