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Wednesday 28 Sept 2016 | 5 min read

The Internet of Things: What it is and why you should get excited about it

Graphic art of a cloud connecting to the internet, made up of smaller images representing all the different ways the internet can be used

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of those concepts that you may have heard a lot about, although it can be difficult to pin down what exactly this broad term refers to. The concept behind the IoT has been under discussion by tech companies for decades, but only has truly gained momentum in recent years with the rise of the Internet, among other factors. Here, we look at the IoT, how it works, the kind of products that are already available, and the possibilities for IoT.

Defining the Internet of Things

While the concept has been around for decades, the phrase was coined by technology pioneer Kevin Ashton. At its core, the IoT is about connecting devices through the Internet to facilitate communication between devices, applications, and humans.

The term has also been defined as connecting any device that has an on-off switch to the Internet and/or to other similar devices. Just about any type of electronic device can be an IoT device. For example, fridges are among the devices that can be connected, along with phones, washing machines, lamps, jet engines on planes, and even drills on oil rigs.

The IoT can also be understood as an enormous network of connected things, within which people play a role. Others have defined it as referring to devices that can sense aspects of the physical world, including temperature, the presence of people, and light, and share that data or act in reaction to it. Machines in an IoT ecosystem are therefore creating information that is shared and used by other machines to improve our lives.

The significance of the Internet of Things

There are many reasons why IoT has been garnering so much attention and excitement. The IoT promises to make our everyday devices and the machines that sustain our societies (ranging from farming parts to manufacturing and mining equipment) ‘smart’.

This is because IoT devices by nature support not only better automated processes, but also the collection of data en masse, which works in real time to allow individual and whole components or networks to work alone or together more effectively. This could translate into, for example, less energy usage, more fuel savings, saved time, and generally more efficient use of resources. For our everyday lives, it can simplify and automate everything- from lighting to grocery shopping.

Security of personal data, compatibility of proprietary systems, and the relatively slower uptake of home devices have been challenges for the mass uptake of IoT. Nevertheless, IoT technologies look set to take an increasingly significant role in our lives. By some estimates, there will be more than 26 billion IoT devices by the year 2020, while others have predicted 200 billion devices and 30 billion of these autonomous devices by 2021.

Drivers behind the rise of the Internet of Things

Behind the growth of IoT and gathering interest in its possibilities is the wide availability of broadband Internet, the decreasing costs of connection, and the growing numbers of Wi-Fi-enabled devices fitted with sensors. In addition, the costs of technology are in decline while smartphone ownership continues to rise. All of these factors have created ideal conditions for supporting IoT in our everyday work and private lives.

How IoT works in practice

Real-life examples of IoT devices already in existence include home heating and energy applications, such as smart metres that allow you to turn on your heating while away from your house. These smart metres can automatically lower the heating temperature when it is a hot day, or switch off the heater when there is no one at home.

Smart homes are already a reality, with products like Samsung’s Smart Home system, along with Google’s Nest, a thermostat that adjusts heating and cooling by monitoring your usage patterns and billing rates.

There are also smart cities that have connected traffic signals that review utility usage, and smart roads and traffic and pedestrian networks.

Possibilities for IoT

The possibilities for IoT appear to be endless, and despite the excitement about IoT on the part of tech companies, its possibilities probably have not been fully explored. However, it is likely that IoT could be easily applied to almost anything; such as pantries, closets, medicine cabinets to automatically top up on essentials when supplies run low.

Other possibilities include smart houses that could manage your house for you if you need to stay away for an extra few days, possibly by turning lights on and off (for security purposes) and watering the lawn for you.

In the future, IoT could also be used on a large scale to control air pollution levels in cities. For example, the technology can help with monitoring CO2 emissions from factories, cars, and farms and generate individualised route and machine operation instructions to minimise energy usage and emissions. Farms could benefit from IoT-enabled technologies that monitor individual crops, rainfall, and soil to maximise yield quality.

IoT could make a significant impact when it comes to vital safety priorities such as monitoring the structural integrity of building and materials. Bridges, roads, and other structures could potentially be fitted with IoT technologies to allow repairs and maintenance work to be carried out in a timely manner.

It’s easy to see that the IoT allows for endless opportunities in terms of smart technology and connectedness, to an extent that we are yet to be able to fully understand. But along with the endless opportunities it offers, so come considerable risks- particularly in terms of security.

With the potential for billions of devices being interconnected, it presents as a considerable challenge to ensure that people’s personal information stays secure. The IoT would open up businesses worldwide to more security threats, as well as increased instances of unlawful privacy and data sharing. However, despite these issues it’s easy to see that the IoT is a concept that we should be excited about, as its untapped potential unfolds over years to come.


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