29 March 2017
Surge in New Applications as IoT Sector Seen as Finally Coming of Age
Although a stalwart of the high-tech scene for several years now, the Internet of Things (IoT) appears to be finally being welcomed into the mainstream, with consumers and business now awake to its endless possibilities and benefits.
This year's IoT Tech Expo Global event provided a perfect snapshot of the ever-evolving world of the Internet of Things (IoT), the inter-networking of smart devices that could, famously, allow your fridge to order fresh milk online when stocks run low or turn sour. Other applications are available.
It's a sector where the dawn has been predicted several times, with the industry evangelical while consumers have remained bemused at best and cynical at worst.
Stealthily, though, smart devices have colonised many homes and businesses across the developed world, with their full potential actually lying dormant until the surrounding environment – and their users – caught up. This could well prove to be the year when that finally happens.
One of the most high-profile exhibitors at the recent London event was UK-headquartered Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Highlighting the growing uptake of Ubuntu, Thibaut Rouffineau, Canonical's Head of Devices Marketing, said: "Ubuntu is now the third-most popular desktop operating system. It is also widely used in cloud storage applications, with 70% of Amazon's web services reliant on the system.
"What a lot of people don't know, though, is that we're also big in the retail field. At present, some 40% of out-of-home digital signage, for instance, runs Ubuntu."
Keen to stay ahead of the game, Canonical has recently been investing heavily in R&D, with Rouffineau saying: "What we're now telling people is that IoT can deliver more intelligence at the point of use. If you're using digital signage and you've installed a camera, you will know just how many people have seen it.
"At one retail event we attended in New York, that kind of thing was creating a real buzz, with retailers saying: 'We need digital signage and IoT to work together and provide a new level of service, one that enables us to better understand our customers'."
For this show, the company was keen to promote Ubuntu Core, a new variant of its standard OS. This upgrade is driven by Snaps, a universal app-enabled Linux package that can be customised by users to meet their individual needs.
Explaining the thinking behind this upgrade, Rouffineau said: "Over the past two years, we've been asking our customers about the difficulties they've encountered while running a substantial IoT network. By and large, most respondents highlighted two issues – security and software management.
"Not so long ago, people would simply firewall their IoT network and never update their software. Now they want to be more flexible in terms of software deployment. This is where Ubuntu Core comes in.
"At one time, something like this would take a system administrator about an hour to set up. Using the Snaps app store mechanism, you can now install the whole package in about two minutes."
Another key exhibitor at the event was Delta, the Copenhagen-based technology giant. With a 25-year heritage in manufacturing electronic chips, the company has now extended its remit into producing IoT sensor nodes, systems that allow devices to store and transfer data. Explaining this shift in focus, Gert Jørgensen, Delta's Vice-president of Sales & Marketing, said: "If we can introduce sensors to non-electronic companies, we believe our business could explode. They could, for instance, be utilised by the automotive industry in order to test tyre pressures.
"Similarly, there is a huge number of medical applications. Wearables could be used to monitor people's vital signs, allowing physicians to predict heart attacks and act accordingly. Alternatively, by inserting a sensor into a plaster, you could measure a patient's temperature and heart rate during an operation. Essentially, this is what IoT does – adds electronics to make any product intelligent."
Expanding on the possibilities, Jørgensen detailed just how IoT could transform the functionality of a simple LED lamp, saying: "By adding sensors to such a lamp, you can detect movement, while monitoring the ambient temperature and luminance in any room. You can also control the lamp remotely, adjusting the luminance on a lamp-by-lamp basis as the natural light changes throughout the day.
"If the lamp were on a supermarket shelf, you could use the sensor to track just how many people visited a certain section to buy things. Now it's far more than an LED lamp – it's actually a hub for capturing data. There are huge possibilities here and the market potential is enormous."
In addition to its commitment to sensor development, Delta also specialises in IoT payment applications, most notably as one of the market leaders in the field of automated toll bridge technology. Showcasing this side of its business, the company was also promoting a range of movement-based optical sensor nodes at the show.
Addressing its priorities in this particular sector, Jørgensen said: "One of our missions in life is to replace every mechanical sensor with an optical sensor. Mechanical sensors are very expensive and very difficult to install, while optical sensors are cheaper and easier.
"We are also firm believers in NFC-compliant RFID interface technology. At present, there are many wireless bridges – Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and so on – but they all have one problem in common in that they all burn power like hell. With RFID interface technology, though, you can have a sensor node that doesn't need a battery. It's basically a non-power consuming wireless bridge."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, specialists in the field of data analytics were also well represented at this year's show. One of the market leaders in this sector is Pennsylvania-based Qlik, which claims to service more than 40,000 customers around the world from its 25 international sites.
Explaining the company's approach, Solutions Development Representative Carl Rushworth said: "In effect, what we do is allow businesses to connect all of their different data sources. They can then access the whole range of their data, analyse it and produce any required reports. If they want to dig deeper and get an understanding of what underlies their data, we can also help with that."
With regard to the much-debated issue of data storage – cloud versus on-site – Qlik favours something of a hybrid approach, with Rushworth saying: "While there are clearly some cases where customers want their operations to be cloud-based, there are also those who want to manage some of the data themselves, particularly when such information is sensitive or finance-related. Despite that, I think the cloud is certainly going to be the future."
Among the smaller companies offering innovative IoT solutions was Chirp, a UK-based business affiliated with University College London. Run by a team of acknowledged experts in the fields of acoustics and communication, the company claims to offer a forward-thinking approach to the problem of data transfer.
Introducing the company's proprietary system, Daniel Jones, Chirp's Chief Science Officer, said: "It's basically a technology that lets you transmit data over audio, embedding information in a series of tones. As such, it's a real alternative to Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
"To date, we are the only people in the IoT field offering audio as a networking tool. We see it as a powerful complementary technology, effectively for the last 10 yards. It's particularly useful in environments where RF technologies – Bluetooth and Wi-Fi – might be too expensive to use or too high-tech to be compatible with legacy equipment.
"RF can also be restricted or prohibited in certain environments, such as medical facilities, power-generation plants and some factories. Acoustics, however, are largely free from any such regulation and can be played over an existing medium.
"You could, for instance, play it over a PA system if you wanted to reset a factory full of robots or if you wanted to change a configuration in a machine room. You can also broadcast it over radio and you can even play it in the form of a vinyl record.
"At present, we're speaking to some potential partners in both mainland China and Hong Kong. Obviously, there is huge interest over there, largely because the IoT sector is growing so fast in Asia."
The IoT Tech Expo Global 2017 show was held at London's Olympia Exhibition Centre from 23-24 January. This year, it welcomed more 5,000 attendees from 66 countries, a significant rise on the 3,000 that attended the 2016 event.
Catherine Jones, Special Correspondent, London