What is IoT?

What’s the point of IoT and where did it come?

Why on earth would you want a coffee machine to talk to your PC, Tablet or Smartphone? Well in the 1990’s it was precisely that which led a group of Cambridge scientists to invent the world’s first Webcam. Frustrated, after walking to the refreshment room and finding the glass coffee pot empty, they built the first Internet-connected camera. This meant they could see when someone else had refilled the coffee brewer and save themselves a wasted journey.

Thirty years later we are in a new era of innovation & invention, called the 4th Industrial Revolution. Anywhere with mobile or internet access, countless machines or devices can now communicate with each other & with our business, by using low-cost sensors, actuators & microcomputers, such as Arduino’s or Raspberry PI’s.

In an IoT world, a vast range of technologies are categorised into three simple groups of ‘things’:

  1. Things that sense any changes and send data onwards.
  2. Things that receive a data command and then act on it.
  3. Things that do both, as well as converting data into useful information.

Thousands of different sensors and actuators can cover almost every purpose ranging from Air Quality to Heart Monitors and Vibration detectors. These enable producers, in any industry, to add greater functionality and customer value to both products and services. For example, your phone can actuate your smart home thermostat as you leave work, whilst the data resulting from your command can add to a geographical spike that tells energy suppliers of increased demand.  Or, vehicles that monitor themselves can alert drivers and dealers to required maintenance, use voice command to book a mutually convenient appointment, whilst also streamlining the car makers’ parts supply-chain. Which means fewer breakdowns & more convenience for drivers, with higher efficiency for dealers and makers.

But IoT does not create value out of nothing. It requires some creative thinking and a multi-disciplinary approach, mostly from parties that could potentially contribute and/or benefit from a new approach. It also depends on management thinking making the transition from departmental silos to developing cross-functional business models and disruptive ecosystems. New ways of doing business that create and sustain mutual value for a range of participants as well as suppliers and customers.

But how do you get into it?

It’s best to start simply, just like taking an old bag of Lego pieces out of the kids’ playbox and seeing what can be created. A starter kit of a dozen different IoT sensors and actuators with plugboard, cables and a microcomputer can be obtained for under £100. A few of these IoT starter kits can be a great way for motivating staff creativity and team building!

IoT will usher in an era of smart machines and automation in many fields. From health care to manufacturing and smart cities. But until IoT matures it can also increase the risk of cyber-attacks, hacking of unsecured devices and network congestion from the sheer number of connected ‘things’. So, begin your IoT exploration with creativity, out-of-the-box thinking & ‘art of the possible’. Then when serious ideas and opportunities emerge, ensure all the security aspects are expertly covered.

Former CIO & member of the Netitude team, Ross Harling has also been an expert technology evaluator for the EU Commission since 2014.

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