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What is the Internet of Things?

Posted on 02/07/2018, by Joe Jones

You’ve probably already heard of the Internet of Things (IoT). The phrase has been cropping up all over the place the past few years – and not just in TED Talks or Wired Magazine. But even if you haven’t, you probably have a device that uses it. In fact, according to one source, the average home has 11 or 12 devices connected to the IoT, and that will go up to 30 by 2020.

The technology allows devices to communicate with each other, and has the potential to transform our lives in all sorts of ways. The biggest technology companies out there know this, and the likes of Google, Amazon and Intel are all pumping money into it like there’s no tomorrow.

Internet of Things in the house

The Smart Home – the term used to describe a household that is connected to the IoT – is where most people will have come across these connected devices. One of the most popular uses is in helping people reduce the amount of energy they use to heat their home.

For example, over one million homes in the UK are already using Nest’s Learning Thermostat. It’s a ‘smart meter’ that learns your heating habits – such as when you get up in the morning, or when you’re not at home – and adjusts your heating automatically. You can even set it to turn on from your mobile phone if you’re coming home early. Alongside keeping people cosy, Nest has managed to save UK customers up to 16% on their energy bills.        

Another well-known example is Amazon’s Alexa. The voice-activated ‘virtual assistant’ can control your home with just a few spoken commands, whether it’s adjusting the brightness and colour of lights, buying an album or even adding an item to your shopping list for when you’re next at the supermarket.

But that's not the only solution Amazon have for those that don’t enjoy a trip to the shops.

Amazon Dash is a small button device you can install around your home. It lets you buy home essentials, such as washing powder, dishwashing tablets, toilet roll, even nappies with a push of a button. Daniel Rausch, Director of Amazon Dash, said “We wanted to take the one-click experience from our website and put it right where people need it most, in the home, near the products that run out. So that buying them is no longer work.”.   

And now, even your fridge could have a mind of its own. These ‘smart fridges’ have cameras inside to keep track of what food you have, and their expiry dates. It can identify recipes and take you through a step-by-step guide to cook-up a korma, meaning you spend less time shopping or meal planning and more time on the things that matter to you. That’s what the IoT is all about - creating a better experience.

Internet of Things in the workplace

However, it’s possible that the place where the IoT will really come into its own is in sectors such as manufacturing and farming.

Intel’s IoT-enhanced manufacturing factories have helped to dramatically improve efficiency. For example, in the past identifying defective devices could take up to eight hours. But new machines, that use image analytics to automatically separate the good from the bad can do it ten times faster.

Also, by collecting and storing so much more data, it’s enabled Intel to reduce the number of tests required on various products, and save around $3 million per product developed in the process.

Farmers Edge is a company that aims to develop systems that farmers can use to improve production. They collect data from onsite weather stations, satellite imagery and soil sampling to be analysed and help the farmers identify issues as they develop, instead of after.

Sensors in the soil determine the amount of moisture that will allow smart irrigation systems to use less water, as it will only turn on when needed. It can help to massively reduce unnecessary cost and waste.

While irrigation systems may not sound as exciting as a thinking fridge, the IoT has the potential to save individual businesses millions of pounds every year. So much so, that a report last year revealed that 1 in 5 businesses in the world are using IoT already, with an additional 28% looking to do so in the near future.

Saving lives?

Smart watches are already widely used to track your heart rate or how many steps you’ve done. But could they also be used to save lives? Smart watches could be put to use to help with elderly care, by detecting when someone falls down or has a heart attack, and sending this information to the emergency services.

In 2014, Intel designed a smart band that tracks a patient’s symptoms of Parkinson’s disease digitally, to save them having to write it down. Alongside, making life easier for them, the device was able to collect data to support research into future treatment of the disease.

IoT – the prospects

There’s of course still a long way to go before the Internet of Things has embedded itself in society. It’s often expensive to install, and, as with any new technology, there are understandable concerns about security – especially considering the amount of personal data involved.

But, considering the huge potential for connected devices to save lives, dramatically cut business waste and improve livign standards, it’s no surprise that by 2020 the IoT is expected to have over 200 billion devices connected to it.