In Spite of Numerous Setbacks, IoT Engineers are Continuing to Break New Ground

Philip Piletic -
Illustration: © IoT For All

Search back just a few years, and you’ll find dozens of claims that the oncoming wave of Internet of Things devices was going to usher in a new industrial revolution. Set the clock forward a little bit and you’ll start to see engineering experts claiming that a number of setbacks have prevented this so-called revolution from ever taking place.

Today, people mostly talk about how adoption still isn’t anywhere near where certain marketing executives had hoped it would be. Even at the height of IoT device sales, less than 33 percent of homeowners even had a home automation device.

Price and retail availability, however, are only a small part of the many reasons that people avoid investing in this kind of technology. Engineers are hard at work attempting to resolve a number of related issues as well.

Barriers to IoT Device Adoption

Privacy concerns are probably the paramount reason that individual end-users don’t want to invest in their own IoT devices. Consumer-grade equipment has developed a rather unfortunate reputation for distributing private information collected from users. While some people are unaware of these concerns, mainstream media outlets have begun to distribute these stories to a much wider audience and that’s helped to ensure that at least some percentage of the intended market hasn’t bought into these products.

At the same time, power consumption and bandwidth limitations have been a major issue. There are only so many ways you could design a microprocessor that’s small enough to fit into a mounted box and won’t drain a battery that’s light enough to remain rechargeable over USB.

Some companies have attempted switching web hosts and building dedicated server infrastructures in order to try and improve overall data throughput. To some degree, this has alleviated the problem.

The fact remains, however, that collecting and processing data from every installed device is a difficult task. In fact, some computer scientists have estimated that the necessary hardware to process all of the world’s incoming IoT statistics doesn’t currently exist, which means that those who adopt new devices could potentially experience major service disruptions.

These disruptions would eventually cause some devices to cease functioning altogether. Perhaps the most stressing concern, however, is the fact that so many manufacturers have an extremely broad scope that doesn’t translate into product lines that consumers actually want.

For instance, startup companies will sometimes come around with a fair level of investment from outside firms. They’ll bring devices to market that don’t have much of a shot of attracting market attention. Once these firms realize that their products aren’t geared toward any specific market segment and therefore won’t sell, it’s normally too late.

Over time, this sort of boom-bust sales dichotomy has tarnished the industry’s reputation. Just like graphical user interfaces were once thought of as childish before they were completely understood, new devices are quickly being seen more as gimmicks than anything else.

Fortunately, though, there are a number of new innovations that have started to attract more attention than any of these setbacks might have in the past. Many of these involve the radical installation of industrial sensors in various types of devices that previously would have never been connected to a public network.

While these devices might not make waves in the retail market, they’re certainly starting to attract plenty of attention in the public works sector.

Industrial Sensors Revitalizing Public Works

At Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the bathrooms are now studded with sensors. Urinals and faucets are starting to collect data from every single fixture and relay them to a cloud database. While this might not sound like much and certainly wouldn’t be the area of an airport that most people would focus on calculating statistics for, this technology has helped to identify certain peak times of water usage and drastically reduce waste.

As a result, it’s become popular enough to attract outside investors who might be interested in giving it a try. Currently, there are only a handful of other sites where water flush sensors have been laid out on such a large scale. That number, however, does continue to grow.

Albert Behr, the CEO of BehrTech, talked about how legacy systems are holding some people back in a recent podcast. Engineers are starting to develop ways to get around this problem, however.

Database patches and regular software upgrades can go a long way toward ensuring that people have access to the information they need to make informed decisions. Many IoT sensors allow users to export data as a spreadsheet or text file, which can then be opened by nearly any standard digital device regardless of age. Using this technique, it’s theoretically possible to interface one of the latest smart thermostats or motion detectors to an antiquated DOS-based PC.

Some companies have decided to bypass the entire issue. For instance, firms that currently have some sort of security system in place may elect to replace their current devices with newer smart cameras as their old ones wear out. Over time, this kind of transition can allow for IoT adoption without suffering from any of the sudden issues that normally occur when a firm radically switches the equipment it’s invested in.

Most sensors operate in a headless mode that doesn’t allow for any sort of user interface. As a result, it’s normally not necessary to retrain workers to work with nearly any type of gear. Most new equipment operates almost totally silently, which gives it the freedom to fit into nearly any kind of workshop.

Manufacturing companies stand the most to gain from this paradigm-changing shift.

The Advent of Industry 4.0 Firms

Experts from the academy of engineering sciences in Germany have been referring to certain types of industrial sensors as Industry 4.0 equipment since at least 2011. They laid out a road map for using embedded systems technology in nearly every kind of workflow you could imagine. While it might have taken longer than many of these top computer scientists originally thought, this kind of equipment is quickly becoming more common than at any other point in history.

Standalone robots have long been the face of automated manufacturing. Networked cyber-physical systems that feature information-based communication between equipment and human technicians are now all the rage. These can make decisions based on sensor input as well as information collected from human operators.

Machines are now able to communicate with each other and send out warnings in regard to the production process. Whenever one senses that there’s an increased risk for defects, the machinery will put out a warning and inform all of the other pieces of gear they’re in communication with as well as any shop floor overseers.

On top of this, Industry 4.0 equipment is capable of reordering scare material inventories and even predicting product shortages. Smarter factories that utilize additive manufacturing techniques can make things on demand, which has taken just-in-time production workflows to new heights. In fact, small business owners are starting to add just-in-time manufacturing processes to the list of services they offer.

This would have never been possible without this kind of technology. Precision agriculture is also possible as a result of the same equipment. Farmers are able to fly drones at pre-planned times and systems will begin to collect information autonomously. This can give planters heretofore unseen levels of data regarding the best time to put in crops and the location of groundwater.

Considering the renewed focus on land management as well as water and food resources, agribusinesses are sure to start adopting the hardware to do this very shortly.

Admittedly, however, it’s taking longer than it should to get to that point.

Expectations Versus Reality in the IoT World

Engineers from Sewio released an infographic that provides a wealth of information on the differences between actual adoption of IoT devices and original expectations. Marketing experts were absolutely bullish about these numbers for quite some time, meaning that there’s a fairly wide disparity between the two sets.

That being said, there’s also a great deal to be hopeful about when it comes to the industry in spite of these numbers. System-on-chip (SoC) designs make it easy to fashion entire circuit boards around a single piece of a silicon wafer. As a result, devices made with them in mind use far less power than older pieces of gear.

Companies that are concerned about electrical consumption are replacing existing pre-IoT equipment with equipment that’s designed to take advantage of the latest developments in SoC architecture. At the same time, the industry is also starting to develop new security protocols that can help reduce the risk of data leaks.

Smart cities were unable to deploy certain types of sensors on a large scale due in part to concerns over privacy and security. These new protocols will help to reduce the risk of data leaks happening and therefore help to assuage these concerns to some degree.

Technicians will also continue to develop radical new uses for these devices.

New IoT Devices Set for Release

Workplace monitors that automatically start and stop equipment when they sense the presence of human employees are already on the market. There are now talks about installing these sensors in the education market as well as in private residences.

At the same time, some technicians are finalizing plans for roadside sensors that can help ease the transition toward autonomous car adoption. Once consumers start to accept these other devices into their daily lives, they’ll be far more ready to invest in all the other IoT gadgets that are needed to keep them working over the long term.

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Guest writers are IoT experts and enthusiasts interested in sharing their insights with the IoT industry through IoT For All. If you're interested in contributing to IoT For All, cli...
Guest writers are IoT experts and enthusiasts interested in sharing their insights with the IoT industry through IoT For All. If you're interested in contributing to IoT For All, cli...