There’s a revolution underfoot that few of us are fully aware. Even fewer are vaguely cognizant of the promises (and dangers) that this revolution has in store for our entire species as we advance head-on into the middle of the 21st century. And when I use the phrase, “our species,” I hope that my words are not taken as simply melodramatic or hyperbolic rhetoric. The impact of this revolution is being felt throughout the globe, and its continuing development promises to be transformative in just about every respect.
Before continuing, it should probably be noted that even the term “IoT” is becoming a bit passe’ as we near the end of the first quarter of this century. IoT is gradually being replaced with an even more descriptive acronym – IoE – the Internet of Everything - because that’s really what the revolution is all about – enabling the interconnection of just about everything.
IoT – what exactly is it?
In the broadest sense, IoT generally refers to the connection of physical devices in such a manner that the connected devices can communicate with and share data with other connected devices as well as be controlled by remotely connected devices. This is probably the most succinct definition that I could offer, and in the section to follow I’ll offer some concrete examples of exactly how device interconnectivity is playing out in the real world.
A quick search on the Google machine yields hundreds of page hits that discuss the IoT topic at great length and from just about every conceivable angle – economics, political, medical, transportation, educational, communication, energy management, environmental monitoring, etc. Pick the area and you’ll very likely discover that others are also ruminating over the very same questions. I highly encourage everyone to spend a few quality moments on the Google to explore what others have written about the IoT revolution in greater detail.
IoT – Real world implementations and applications
Have you noticed the many new gadgets that made their first appearance during this year’s holiday buying palooza? One of my favorites was the product that integrated a surface-mounted doorbell ringer, a miniature camera, a speaker and a synchronous communications line with an app on your smart phone. The result? Instant doorman! Now, whenever someone pressed the doorbell, the product’s high-resolution camera was activated and a call was made to your smartphone allowing you to see who was ringing and, moreover, allow you to answer the doorbell ring as if you were comfortably ensconced inside the building. Going a step further, one manufacturer of such devices incorporated a motion sensor with their model to detect when anyone (or anything) simply approached the door. As soon as motion was detected, a call goes out to your smart phone and the camera sends a clear video picture, all without the visitor pressing a traditional doorbell button to alert you to their presence.
And did you happen to notice the plethora of home security systems that were advertised to consumers over the holidays? Self-installed devices that offered video monitoring (inside and outside of the home), smoke and carbon monoxide detection, remote doorbell answering, lighting control, heating/cooling thermostat control and remotely controlled door lock activation/deactivation capabilities were features offered on at least three new products introduced to this segment of the consumer products marketplace.
Another IoT gadget that seems to be gaining enormous popularity is the “smart watch.” The Fitbit, first introduced in 2007 by Fitbit (San Francisco, CA), now has several manufactures producing products that rival the Fitbit in ever-more creative and capable ways. Apple Watch, Android Wear, Microsoft Band and the Garmin Forerunner are all examples of IoT products that fall under the genre of “wearable technologies.” These miniaturized products fit attractively on your wrist and pack an array of sensors and communications capabilities that would astonish even Dick Tracy – heartbeat monitors, step counters, accelerometers, galvanic skin response sensors, ambient light sensors, calorie counters, GPS sensors, Bluetooth links to your smartphone, graphic and vibrator interfaces to smartphone email and text messaging and apps capable of tracking, storing and analyzing data about your movements and your health in ways that were unimaginable just a couple of years ago. For probably the first time since Dick Tracy made his appearance in local newspapers it’s clear that it won’t be long before wearable communications products are an integral part of our daily lives.
But IoT as a major new contributor to the proliferation of consumer goods is not the end of the trail for this tsunami-sized wave of technical innovation headed our way. Industry leaders envision literally millions of applications that will be the beneficiary of IoT integration in the very near future. Manufacturing, energy management, transportation, medical and healthcare, environmental monitoring (land, lakes, rivers, oceans and atmosphere), transportation and municipal project developments, for example, are just a few of the areas currently taking full advantage of the many developments in IoT technology and the infrastructure supporting the IoT revolution.
Industry experts project that by 2020 more than 20 billion IoT devices will be connected and by 2050 upwards of 40 to 50 billion devices will be connected in a variety of different ways. The interconnection of these IoT devices will affect our lives in ways that may be difficult for many of us to fully comprehend at this relatively early stage of development. But make no mistake about, they will be profound.
IoT – how does it all work?
As you might have already surmised, the Internet is the foundational infrastructure of the IoT revolution. The Internet is the digital web that connects every area of our planet with every device that we might want to collect data from or communicate with to monitor and/or effect a desired and controlled change. So, exactly how are these connections managed, you might wonder? Without getting too deep into the technical woods, the answer is fairly straightforward: provide each of the IoT devices with a unique IP (internet protocol) address. If you’ve ever attempted to create a local area network for your business in the last couple of years you may have noticed the availability of a new IP address range called “IPv6” (Internet Protocol version 6). In addition to solving several other limitations of the prior IPv4 addressing scheme, IPv6 extends the number of possible unique IP address to 3.4 x 1038 power. How many unique addresses is that, you wonder? Here’s how many: 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
I don’t believe a word has been invented yet to describe that number!
The move to supplant IPv4 in favor of IPv6 was formalized in 1998 in anticipation of the growing number of internet connected computers, tablets, smart phones and other IoT-enabled gadgets that were beginning to proliferate around the globe.
Of equal significance in this revolution are the ever-evolving capabilities of wireless cellular technologies, satellite communication technologies and the recent proliferation of “cloud” storage sites that will help to harness the full implementation of the IoT revolution. Further, the continued miniaturization of electronic components and the development of surface-mounted, chip-level computers, sensors and actuators is another important facet of the IoT revolution that promises to propel the revolution to its greatest heights. In this vein, for example, ever-more-capable products from Arduino, Raspberry Pi, X-Bee and others top the list of manufacturers plowing head-on into the IoT revolution.
IoT – the dangers? What are they?
In the opening paragraph of this article I parenthetically alluded to the “dangers” inherent in the IoT revolution. So, what are those “dangers?” Clearly, the single most significant danger that the IoT revolution faces revolves around issues involving security. One of the most well-known and early examples of an embarrassing security breach occurred in 2012 when an IoT enabled refrigerator known as the LG Internet Digital DIOS was hacked by cyber warriors who ultimately managed to infect more than 100,000 other similar “smart devices” that were connected to the internet and enabled remote access and control. Although the refrigerator product was deemed a commercial flop and production of the model was halted in 2014, it was the focal point of hackers who managed to infect the refrigerator’s software (as well as the software of other IoT-enabled home appliances, Internet-connected TVs, home media systems, etc.) with a bot that surreptitiously sent more than 750,000 malicious emails to recipients around the globe that contained the same malware as the device on which it was originally installed. Try to imagine the chaos that would result from a breach of any segment of the nation’s evolving smart energy grid resulting from a similar attack.
How was this attack so easily conducted? The answer, it turns out, was the same as the one that we see so often today – the dispassionate use of a password to protect the software’s entry gate!
IPv6 addresses these security issues by incorporating additional measures directly in its addressing scheme. Although this additional security feature is indeed very helpful in guarding against such attacks, consumers of internet-connected devices (including PCs, tablets and smart phones) are still cautioned against giving their passwords a simple-to-guess, 8-character word such as, “password” or the easy-to-remember “2580” or “123456789” - by far the most commonly used passwords of them all. “Password” was, BTW, the code used by John Podesta to protect entry into his email account at the DNC and that Rusky hackers used to so easily gain access to his communications with others in his circle.
IoT – the future
Make no mistake about it, we’re part of a digital revolution that promises to transform the way we live. Every sector of our lives will be touched by the innovations that the IoT revolution undergoes in the years to come. It goes without saying that the weighing, measurement and process control industries will not go undisturbed. An ever-increasing number of weighing, measurement and process control devices are – at this very moment – being equipped with smart, miniaturized components that will connect its users (and managers) in ways that can only be described as magical.
Al Blazo is an independent consultant with more twenty years of experience in the weighing, measurement and process control industry. Al specializes in applications development for the GSE® line of process control instrumentation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and welcomes readers’ comments.