The European Commission recently approved a plan to encourage farmers to use electronic tagging to identify cattle. This, regulators believe, will help make rearing cattle more efficient, cut fraud, and help stem the spread of diseases.
The UK’s National Beef Association welcomed the proposal, but pointed out that if the public is to benefit from the data created by electronic cattle tags, there will have to be some central repository in which to collect it.
“If [it] wants to reduce overall costs, increase efficiencies, improve real-time reporting, do away with fraud and other animal disease issues, as well as decrease bureaucracy,” NBA director Kim Haywood told the Farmers Guardian, “then the government must be prepared to invest in … a central or UK database to achieve these benefits.”
This is just one of many cases for what is sometimes described as the ‘Internet of things’.
A broad term (even by the standards of ‘cloud computing’ and ‘big data’), it was first coined by British-born MIT researcher Kevin Ashton in 1999. Its approximate meaning today is a system for integrating the data produced by devices such as RFID tags or sensors in order to monitor, measure, manage and enhance physical objects.
Certain industries, such as defense and utilities, have been using sensor networks for decades. But the falling cost and size of electrical components, and the growing abundance of communications technologies, mean that ‘Internet of things’ – like applications are becoming viable in a broader range of industries, including city management, retail and healthcare to name but a few.
Furthermore, the value of the ‘Internet of things’ increases as more data becomes available to integrate, revealing new patterns of interconnectedness in the physical world.
All this presents an abundance of economic opportunity, and it is an opportunity that the UK is as well placed as any country to grasp. It certainly sits well with the government’s strategy of supporting high-tech manufacturing as a source of economic growth.
However, just like the conventional Internet, the ‘Internet of things’ relies on the participation of a wide range of constituents. It must involve electronics manufacturers, to make the sensors and tags; communications device makers and service providers, to link them together; data aggregation and analysis providers to help make sense of it all; and product and service designers, to make it usable to ordinary businesses and consumers.
All these exist in the UK, but they are fragmented. Collaboration between these sectors seems essential for the economic potential of the ‘Internet of things’ to be realised.
At the same time, the diversity of skills available in the UK may be what gives the country its best chance of being a bigger player in the ‘Internet of things’ than it is on the Internet.
Next> Innovation at the component level
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One area where the UK punches well above its weight is designing electronic components. Thanks to the likes of chipmaker ARM Holdings and Bluetooth-inventor Cambridge Silicon Radio (CSR), the Cambridge cluster in particular has become a centre of technical expertise for the age of wireless communications.
Among the region’s brightest new hopes is Neul. Set up by James Collier, the former chief technology officer of CSR, Neul is developing a system for wireless machine-to-machine (M2M) communications – the kind required to link together tags and sensors – that uses so-called white space radio frequencies.
“In order to make M2M cheap and ubiquitous, you need low frequency spectrum because it goes much further,” explains Neul’s CTO William Webb. “But access to those low frequencies is usually incredibly hard to come by, and broadcasters and carriers will pay license fees of up to £1 billion just for a small chunk.”
However, there is abundant unused low frequency spectrum sitting around the frequencies that carry TV broadcasts, known as white space. “This space can’t be used for TV broadcasts because it would interfere with other transmissions, but it can be used by lower power devices,” Webb explains. “We believe this is the answer to the machine-to-machine conundrum, as it is cheap, unlicensed, and every country in the world uses a similar frequency for TV broadcasts.”
White space is not perfect, Webb admits, and transmissions are susceptible to interference. Neul’s work so far has been focused on developing components that can cope with interference using techniques such as changing frequencies when a spike in error rates is detected.
In the long term, the hope is for Neul’s technology to be adopted by chipmakers and telecommunications infrastructure manufacturers, comparable to the business model adopted by ARM Holdings. To prove the concept, however, it is starting by building the equipment itself, and a trial project is currently underway in and around Cambridge.
Webb does not see Neul as necessarily an ‘Internet of things’ provider – the equipment could be used in private, closed networks that bear no resemblance to the Internet. “Our technology connects machines to a core network,” he says, and whether customers connect that core network to the public Internet would be up to them.
Clearly, though, it is a concept that may drive demand for affordable machine-to-machine networks, and Neul is well placed to benefit from that.
Connecting to the cloud
While Neul is focused on designing M2M technology that it hopes to sell to manufacturers and operators, Manchester-based Ibexis sells directly to businesses and takes more of a services-driven approach.
Ibexis makes devices that convert the electrical output of sensors into data, process that data into a meaningful output and transmit the data to a cloud-hosted database, through a cellular or satellite network. It then makes that data available to its clients, either through a purpose built application or as web feeds to their own systems.
To do all this, the company has had to address some of the issues involved in processing sensor data. For one thing, says co-founder Andy Jones, it pays to take a distributed approach.
“If you’ve got lots of devices in locations where communications are difficult or expensive, you want to do as much processing as you can locally, so you can send the minimum of data over the network,” he explains. The processing that Ibexis’ devices conduct locally includes averaging out sensor readings to eliminate anomalies.
At the back-end, meanwhile, sensor data requires database designs that reflect its peculiar characteristics, Jones explains. “Once sensor data has been written, it never changes – that’s always going to be the reading for that point in time,” he explains. “And there’s vast quantities of it, so you need a system that allows you to write lots of things. Traditional databases can get overwhelmed very quickly.”
Ibexis uses Amazon’s SimpleDB web service to collate the data, and uses an XML schema to aggregate it according to likely searches, such as time and date.
Jones is enthusiastic about the possibilities of the ‘Internet of things’, and argues that its true value will emerge when sensor data is made available to share and integrate. “The inflection point is when you start linking all the data together,” he explains.
Next> Linking the data, and the role product design
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Linking the data together is proving to be one of the sticking points for the Internet of things, according to Maurizio Pilu, lead technologist at the UK government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB).
The TSB recently held an over-subscribed workshop to discuss the possibilities and challenges facing the ‘Internet of things’.
“The feeling was that applications and services that could make money, and that could change our lives, are not emerging fast enough,” explains Pilu. “And one of the main reasons is that data produced by ‘things’ is not interoperable, due to the fragmentation of the industry.”
There are companies trying to address this, however, and one of the most successful to so far is London-headquartered Pachube.
A web-based platform for integrating real-time data, Pachube rose to world prominence earlier this year during the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. When the nuclear facility was struck by the earthquake, the government at first denied that radiation levels were abnormally high. But citizens armed with Geiger counters used Pachube to plot their readings on a map and demonstrate otherwise.
Pachube, possibly the UK’s biggest ‘Internet of things’ success story so far, was acquired by US remote PC access provider LogMeIn for $15 million in July 2011. LogMeIn was not available for comment.
Not every organisation wants to share its data in public, of course, for reasons of commercial sensitivity and security. However, Pilu argues that for ‘Internet of things’ applications to emerge, software developers need data to experiment with.
For this reason, he says, the UK’s Open Data Initiative may one day prove to be a driver. Although most data published today is static and historical, if the government were to publish its many real-time sensor datasets, it could lead to public ‘Internet of things’ applications, and therefore foster the required skills.
In the meantime, however, the TSB is hoping to encourage organisations to develop ‘demonstrators’, proof-of-concept implementations that combine the various layers of the ‘Internet of things’ to produce complete products and services, by allocating project grants of up to £50,000.
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is a product designer and partner at London firm Really Interesting Group, and a proponent of the ‘Internet of things’. Her view is that while the technical infrastructure is necessary, it is not sufficient for useful applications to emerge.
“My perspective is that it’s good to create infrastructure, but unless you do something with it, it’s kind of pointless,” she says.
Furthermore, she says, the technical questions surrounding infrastructure will be much easier to resolve once more usable products exist. “We talk about interoperability standards, but the more finished products there are, the more we can have an educated conversation about what those standards might be, because we want those products to work together.”
So far, however, good quality ‘Internet of things’ products are thin on the ground. Deschamps-Sonsino says one of the best examples so far is Nabaztag, a programmable robotic rabbit that connects to the Internetâˆ(pictured). Users can configure the rabbit to light up on a given signal, such as receiving an email, or to read out weather updates. “The interactions you have with that product are simple but it works really well,” she says, “It is closer to a toy than a gadget, which means you can have it in the heart of the home.”
Unfortunately, the company behind Nabaztag could not make it viable. “The price tag was too high and the hardware was all bespoke,” explains Deschamps-Sonsino. The original creators went bankrupt in 2009, and the company that took over ceased production in July 2011.
“As a business it failed, but I don’t think anybody so far has come close to doing what they did,” she says. “Hopefully, because everybody’s getting excited about the ‘Internet of things’ now, there will be more opportunities.”
Deschamps-Sonsino believes that the UK is well placed to develop popular ‘Internet of things’ products. “The UK has a wonderful mixture of technology and the creative industries,” she says. “In the US, it’s very polarised between New York and San Francisco.”
One big disadvantage
Maurizio Pilu believes the UK has three strong advantages when it comes to the Internet of things. “We have world-class communications technology research base; we are strong at data analytics; and we are an early adopter of technologies like this,” he says.
“But there is one big disadvantage,” he says. “This stuff costs money, and like other countries, the UK is going through a period of cautious investment decisions.”
China, on the other hand, is building massive new cities complete with cutting-edge sensor networks. This is therefore a technology area where China could well achieve the innovative edge.
“I’ve seen different figures on how much China is investing in the ‘Internet of things’ and I don’t believe any of them,” says Pilu. “But it’s certainly a lot of money.”
However, Pilu also remarks that China’s approach to the technology is different. “They see this as a big IT system which they install in a given city, with a huge control room where you can see everything,” he says. “That’s a very expensive approach, and it’s also very rigid.”
“In the UK however, these big ticket investments are out of the question, so we have to be agile, work together, form relationships, prototype projects and fail quickly.”
He hopes this necessity might work in the UK’s advantage, resulting in an ‘Internet of things’ sector that is both more innovative and more viable.
“What we’re trying to do with our investment is find out where collaboration is needed, but is not happening, either because companies are too busy or because there are misaligned incentives.”