The Internet of Things (IoT) - a bit of background

Crispin - 27 January 2015

Technology has a habit of cruising in to disturb your life – that can be in a good way as well as a bad. For example, some existing jobs may be lost to robots in the future, but many more may be created because robots become cheap.

Whilst in New Jersey in 2012, I met an AT&T research manager (Bell Labs) who asked me where I thought the Internet was going and I made some kind of reply that I don’t remember. But I do remember her telling me that the interest in her research labs was all to do with connecting things (tables, chairs, etc) to the Internet. What I now know is that she was talking about the Internet of Things – connecting up devices, be they domestic or industrial, to the Internet.

As a former electronics engineer, I find this idea enormously appealing because, unlike quite a few software developers, the hardware side of computing holds no fears for me. I've even built a single board computer from scratch - and one of its applications was to help keep a cross-channel ferry upright.

The interest in IoT also brings to mind some work I did back in the late 80s, early 90s for a German manufacturing company in Lüdenschied where the principal wanted to have a ‘big picture’ of what was happening on the factory floor by connecting all the manufacturing machines to a central data store. The initial idea was just to monitor the machine throughput so as to assist just in time factory planning that was all the rage then. However, the demand came to expand this monitoring to many other parameters on each machine. In essence this was the Internet of Things before the web was invented (the web debuted in August 1991 in case you were wondering).

Today we’d kit the manufacturing machines out with a Raspberry Pi or similar as an embedded computer and use a wi-fi network to communicate with the factory’s IT system. This would solve two problems we had then: the first being that machines do get moved around and being wireless helps; the second is that factories are places where mains voltages can be spiky or electrical earths ‘bounce’ – eg when the injection moulding machine cycles or someone fires up a welder – and wired LANs don’t like this one bit.

The natural targets for the Internet of Things are devices like robots, smart homes (heating and ventilation control, security systems including windows, doors and cameras), weather stations and learning systems. The less obvious things are going to fall into the why didn’t I think of that category when they become ubiquitous.

Think about what things you might like to connect, what data you would like to have and run it past us. It’s all web stuff to us. Bev's now trying to figure out how to connect her horse to the Internet...