In the age of the smartphone, the idea that human beings can be connected to each other in new and innovative ways no longer comes as much of a surprise. Connecting inanimate objects, however – and the reasons why one might do it – can be harder to comprehend. Yet all around us, everything from energy meters to elephants is being connected to a network that is growing at an incredible pace; the so-called Internet of Things or IoT. (The hope is that electronically tagging elephants can protect them from poachers).
Gartner, a research company, says that 6.4 billion connected 'things' will be in use worldwide by the end of 2016 . Cisco, one of the world's largest networking companies and a pioneer of IoT technology, thinks that figure will rise to an extraordinary 50 billion by 2020. Whatever the actual numbers, the Internet of Things is set to become ubiquitous in the most literal sense of the word.
Already, more or less anything we can imagine is being linked to a network of some kind; not least cars, which are right in the vanguard of the push towards a truly connected world. And, in particular, tyres – Pirelli’s data scientists have been gathering and integrating data from the company’s connected Cyber Tyre research fleet for several years, using embedded sensors to measure tyre wear, vertical loads, temperature and pressure, out in the field.
Why connect all of these ‘things’ at all? The answer is information – and more importantly, the value of that information in making decisions and automating processes.
The idea is that by connecting and sharing information from the objects and products around us – household appliances, street lighting and signage, leisure equipment and venues, public transport infrastructure and of course cars, to name just a few – our daily existence and wellbeing can be improved in myriad ways. Individuals will use less energy, take better care of their health and live safer, more productive lives. Companies will automate more processes, use fewer resources and improve the logistics of their business. In short, we’ll all be living smarter.
By connecting and sharing information from the objects around us our daily existence and wellbeing can be improved in myriad ways
How does this vision translate to the real world? Already, the IoT is delivering on many of these promises. One increasingly widespread example is the intelligent thermostat, a simple but highly connected household device that helps control energy use. By monitoring usage patterns and learning how a house’s occupants typically inhabit its rooms, such devices can optimise heating throughout the home with little or no human input.
But this barely scratches the surface of the potential for smart living – and many other areas of our lives are being revolutionised by IoT technologies and services. Healthcare, for example, is an area where connected things are increasingly abundant. Most of us are familiar with the new wave of internet-enabled fitness monitors; but today, everything from blood pressure monitors to heart pacemakers are also being linked to healthcare networks so that patients can be monitored from a distance. Such devices are easier and often much cheaper to administer remotely than to do so in bricks-and-mortar hospitals or clinics; and they offer benefits to patients that are hard to deliver via traditional models.
Everything from blood pressure monitors to heart pacemakers are being linked to healthcare networks so that patients can be monitored from a distance
Older people, for example, can stay independent for longer when connected devices monitor their wellbeing, rather than more expensive (and far less portable) doctors and nurses. Users of connected walking sticks can alert medical staff via an SOS button if they fall over ; wearable devices such as wristbands or fitness monitors can alert patients to take medication on time. And with remotely controlled infusion pump systems, doctors can even administer drugs directly and adjust the dosage according to live data received from the device.
Driving the IoT superhighway
Applications like these are beginning to show the real potential of the IoT to help us live better lives. But today, most such examples are standalone; individual applications that are not as yet well integrated into a broader whole. The real value of the Internet of Things will start to emerge when everything is connected – not just as an endpoint, but as part of a mesh. In other words, when everything literally connects to everything else.
Long known for its technical innovation, it is perhaps unsurprising that the automotive industry is helping to drive the next phase of the IoT’s evolution. All major car manufacturers now routinely include connected, internet-enabled features in their models; Gartner says that there will be 250m connected vehicles on the world’s roads by 2020 .
Exactly how connected they might be was demonstrated by several manufacturers at this year’s Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona. Seat, for example, unveiled a suite of technologies that will allow its cars to do everything from reserve and pay for parking spaces to automatically switch on household heating and appliances when they are within a specific range of the owner’s home .
Meanwhile Pirelli’s Cyber Tyre data is shared with telematic equipment that produces real-time information on fuel consumption, speed, driver behaviour, traffic conditions and the weather. This can help fleet managers make vital decisions to improve the safety, smooth running and economy of their vehicles based on better maintenance, fuel consumption and choice of tyres.
There are still many barriers to cross before the vision of a really connected world becomes reality. Multiple connectivity standards, for example, still make it difficult for devices from disparate manufacturers to communicate and there are concerns over security and vulnerability to hacking. But the central technologies are in place, and the IoT’s momentum seems unstoppable. However we get there, we are destined to live better lives in a joined-up world of the future: to paraphrase DuPont’s famous 1935 slogan, smarter things for smarter living… through connectivity.