What is the Internet of things?
Internet of Things (IoT) is a term very commonly used when describing technologies associated with the 4th industrial revolution. However if we look at IoT in it’s simplest form – “things” that are connected to the internet – we will discover that internet enabled devices have been around for a very long time. A smart phone is a simple example of an internet enabled device.
Why the change from internet enabled device to internet of things? Internet enabled devices require human input whereas IoT devices are generally completely autonomous.
Let’s look at it practically. A smoke detector is a great “thing”. It is attached to a wall or ceiling and monitors for smoke. If it detects smoke it sounds a loud alarm alerting the residents of a house that there is a problem. If they are sleeping they are hopefully woken by the noise and get to safety.
The benefit of adding an internet connection to the smoke detector is quite large. The device will be able to alert authorities that there is a problem and dispatch a fire engine sooner than an individual who is sleeping and is woken by the alarm. Alternatively the alert could be sent to the house owner who may be away from home but is able to take actions to prevent his house burning down. In business applications the data from the smoke detector starts creating a great data set for management to analyse. An environment where smoke is often present could be mapped out and studied potentially resulting in millions saved because of improvements of efficiency.
Getting back to what is internet of things – it is connecting devices that measure, monitor and track to the internet. Why? So that we can either improve our usage out of the device like in the smoke detector example above or so we can start getting more information from the world around us. For example if we wanted to know where our vehicle was we would use an internet enabled GPS to give us real time feedback allowing us to track our vehicle at any point in time.
If we look at what IoT is from a different perspective it bridges the gap between physical objects like pallets, vehicles, machinery, people, etc… and translates vital metrics into digital data. It’s like giving ordinary objects a voice.
From the perspective of a business IoT is an invisible technology that sits hidden on objects. Value is created by amalgamating the data from the object into the business process.
IoT – connecting devices to the internet that measure, monitor and track ordinary objects to improve usage or give us information about the world around us.
How are smart devices controlled?
It depends greatly on what the devices are intended to do. Even though IoT devices are connected to the internet the majority of the time they are deployed to tell us what’s happening on a regular basis. We very seldom need to “communicate” with the device to change its parameters.
Imagine a probe that measures temperature in a bedroom. The device has one purpose measure temperature. Once it does that it sends the reading to the cloud. The cloud does all the thinking work in translating that reading into something that is useful for our application. In that context we might want an alert to say “Too Hot” if the room temperature gets above 30 degrees.
If we consider once the IoT device is able to connect to the internet it is able to focus on only its task and not process large amounts of data. In doing so the device is able to be manufactured with less processing power and therefore less cost and requires a smaller amount of firmware because it only needs to do the task it was designed for – in this case measure temperature.
It is therefore the platform – the software interface that manages the data sent from the IoT device - that controls the device. Once the platform receives the data the user is able to manage how they want to handle the data. In a bedroom or office 30 degrees may be very hot. In an oven 30 degrees would be cold. The platform and the IoT device are agnostic to the application – the goal is to measure temperature which the device is doing. This is the strength of an IoT installation – it is about the data and how you want to manage the data.
In the beginning it may be required to adjust some settings of the device. Those options will be very limited however it is possible to make minor changes by either connecting the device via usb, sending a short message via the internet or if the device has that capability connect to it through Bluetooth.
What wireless protocol does the device use?
There are 3 core technologies used for long range IoT devices.
Sigfox (Sqwidnet is the SA operator) and LoRa (which stands for Long Range and is a Google technology). These technologies use the public radio spectrum. Only the base station is connected to the internet. Sigfox has about 1000 base stations. LoRa is a self built network so will only really be used when you have enough devices in a small enough area.
Both base stations can span many kilometres. Sigfox has one base station that is able to detect devices up to 100 kilometres away. Although under normal scenarios (this is a particularly good high site) you are more likely to get somewhere between 10 and 40.
What is particularly interesting about how these technologies work is that they are radio based. The IoT device will broadcast an encrypted radio signal. The base station will detect the signal, decrypt it and send it to the server. This means the device can wake up, send a signal and go back to sleep without wasting time connecting to the network. It does have it’s downsides. There is no confirmation that the message has actually gone through – although the technology is maturing and has a low failure rate. The other downside is the devices don’t easily receive messages. IoT thrives on remote, autonomous usage with a long battery life. When the device is sleeping it won’t receive a message. While technically it’s possible it’s just a bit more difficult to get right.
Sigfox has over 90% coverage in SA including 100% of all major highways.
LoRa is a build your own network so could be deployed as and when required. Ideal use case is an area that contains enough devices to justify the installation costs.
The next technology is very well known. GSM. GSM is the basic cellular network and through one provider or another will cover all of SA. IoT devices that are GSM based will have a sim card and connect to the internet in a very similar way to a cell phone. The major difference is how much usage they consume – very little. The device is broadcasting small amounts of data (like a GPS co-ordinate or a temperature reading). The trouble with GSM based systems is they are more expensive due to cell data costs and management is quite cumbersome because if you have deployed 1000 devices you need 1000 sim cards with sufficient data on them. There are private APN providers who can make the process easier. The other major drawback is battery usage. Since the device manages a connection differently to the radio solution sleep mode is limited. If you consider your cell phone is always connected to the tower so that when someone sends an SMS you are able to receive it nearly instantly. IoT devices that are GSM based use up significantly more battery power as a result of that.
GSM does have its pros primarily if you application has access to power, requires more data to be sent through or requires a downlink then a GSM solution will work well.
The last technology is also a cellular technology but as yet hasn’t been rolled out in SA. NBIoT and LTE-M. Both those technologies are run through a cell operator through proprietary frequencies which gives more reliable throughput in very busy times. These technologies will work similarly to GSM but offer better sim management and a network designed for IoT devices. They will provide a cheaper connection method than GSM and like GSM will have better downlinks and more upload capacity.
The downside of these technologies that they are not very mobile! They remain connected to a tower and won’t connect to another until the previous times out. In a moving environment like vehicle tracking this technology would not work well. For a stationary environment like machinery monitoring it can work very well.
Short range technologies are also available
Zwave, Zigbee and Thread are home automation technologies. They work in a similar way to your wifi network.
The important industrial use short range technology is Bluetooth. Every phone already has the technology and it is extremely easy to setup Bluetooth beacons to cover an entire warehouse.
Speak to us and we will help you find the best form of connectivity for your application.
How much data does a smart device require?
The short answer is – very little.
Long range networks like Sigfox or Lora call themselves 0G networks because under most circumstances IoT devices need to broadcast very very small amounts data. Remote IoT devices will typically take a measurement (GPS, temperature, weight etc...) and send that through to the cloud. The IoT device itself is only sending a few characters of data.
Data usage is a big driver for IoT devices. Until recently IoT devices would use the GSM network which is the same network that the cell providers use. The trouble with GSM networks is 1. They are relatively expensive 2. They are very battery intensive on small devices.
New networks like Sigfox (Sqwidnet is the South African operator) or LoRa are long range networks that use the public radio spectrum. Remote IoT devices send a signal that is received by the base station. The base station is connected directly to the internet requiring only one internet breakout point instead of millions. Radio technology allows devices to send small messages at a very low cost and without using significant amounts of battery.
Two way communication with IoT devices is typically quite limited – radio technologies like Sigfox only allow a small number of messages. Although, there are other critical issues with two way communication between platforms and IoT devices. The most critical relates to the battery consumption – IoT devices don’t connect to the internet all the time. They only connect when they have a message to send. Sleep or hibernation of devices allows them to preserve battery life. If a message is going to be sent to the device it needs to be sent while the device is awake or else the message will be lost.
IoT uses very little data to send their messages. They are designed to remain in hibernation for as long as possible and only connect to a network when they need. Sending messages back is very limited. Although usb or Bluetooth technologies work extremely well but require close proximity to the device.
There are obviously applications like remote cameras that require higher bandwidth because they broadcast much greater amounts of data. Those types of applications are unique and required a good internet connection in-order to function at 100% capacity.
Does it need charging?
Ultra long battery based IoT applications are where all the new technology is going. Until recently devices couldn’t last for more than a few days without being charged. Now due to battery improvements and better connection methods devices can last for months.
In terms of charging – yes they do need charging (or new batteries). IoT devices can be charged through USB. Newer devices will take advantage of wireless charging.
IoT devices that are deployed in locations where power is readily available will be connected to a power source. There will normally be a backup battery inside the device which will be able to send an alert warning of a power failure.
A significant strength of IoT is it’s ability to remain autonomous – so while some devices could last for multiple years on a single charge manufacturers are searching for ways to preserve battery life as much as possible.
How often will it need updating?
Technology changes rapidly. IoT devices on the other hand serve a very simplified job – measure, monitor and track. Devices are designed to fulfil the minimum amount of functions and to remain in operation for years.
Updates to firmware in complete devices will be limited as unless there is a problem with the hardware or a bug in an already deployed device there won’t be much need to update any software. Updating firmware to remote devices can also be challenging. A device attached to a wild animal to monitor their behaviour could make the device inaccessible. However fortunately as long as the device is functioning correctly there are limited reasons to update the firmware.
Platforms will be hosted in a cloud environment and can be updated frequently. Platform changes will apply globally so users will never need to worry about updating software.
Hardware is becoming cheaper, smaller and more powerful year on year. IoT devices overtime will likely be replaced by smaller better quality versions – but will still fulfil the same functions.
How do I control it or receive information from it?
You don’t need to control your IoT device – not in the conventional sense. Each device is built for a specific purpose. That purpose is essentially to communicate through the internet and supply information from it’s sensors EG a GPS co-ordinate.
How do you receive that info?
Technologies like Sigfox or LoRa use a radio network. Your device will send a message through the radio network which will be received by the base station. The base station decrypts the message and sends it onto a server.
GSM or Mobile IoT technologies (yet to be launched in SA) use the cellular networks to send data. The end result is very similar in that the data ends up on a server in the cloud.
The biggest difference is that devices connected to the cellular network are directly connected to the internet whereas with the radio networks only the base station is connected to the internet.
In most cases the data sent from the device will be managed by a platform. The platform is how the user interacts with the data from their device.
Although some advanced users will want to develop their own software. Warehouse management or logistics companies would do that to great effect because then they can get a better picture of what stock they have on hand.