The internet of things

Chris McLaughlin, MD of MIS AMS

Working as the MD of an integrated software firm, I have to ensure that I have my finger on the pulse of any technological changes. One of the terms used a lot in the media is ‘Internet of things’.

It is a term that internet users and IT folk alike have been tapping into search engines with questions about. But what does it mean for real life? The answer is simple ‘change’ and its key is data. I’ve taken a look at some commonly asked questions and have given my thoughts.

What is the internet of things (and why is it important)?

The internet of things (or as it’s also known, IoT) isn’t new, even though many think it is due to its sudden name dropping in conversations and across the media. Tech companies and experts have been discussing the idea for decades.

At its core, IoT is simple: it’s about connecting devices over the internet, letting them talk to us, applications, and each other. This includes everything from mobile phones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of.  This also applies to components of machines, smoke alarms or for example a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig. It’s a concept that not only has the potential to impact how we live but also how we work.

A popular example and one that is easy to get to grips with is the smart fridge: what if your fridge could tell you it was out of milk, texting you if its internal cameras saw there was none left, or that the carton was past its use-by date.

Where it’s most common in Britain at least, is home heating and energy use – partially because the government is pushing energy companies to roll out smart meters. They have clever functions that let you turn on heating remotely, set it to turn down the temperature if it’s a sunny day, or even turn off when there’s no-one home. They’re a new kind of gas and electricity meter that can digitally send meter readings to your energy supplier, ensuing more accurate energy bills. Every home in Britain will have a smart meter installed by 2020 (even though many critics are already saying this timescale isn’t achievable!)

IoT is more than smart meters and connected appliances.  It scales up to include smart communities and smart cities – think of smart irrigation systems wiping out the ‘hosepipe ban’, or smart bins that signal when they need to be emptied – and industry, with connected sensors for everything from tracking parts to monitoring crops.

One of our MIS clients, Berwickshire Housing Association, is already using IoT in their smoke alarm systems in their properties. The technology installed lets the team know that the battery in any smoke alarm is running low and will soon need replacing.  This then sends an alert for an operative to go and replace the failing batteries.  They’re pre-empting a repair call out and protecting their tenants by having alarm systems that will always be in working order.

So why does IoT really matter? There’s a reason the government is encouraging energy companies to hand you a smart meter: all that data and automated use is more efficient, meaning we use less energy. Many of the ‘smart’ functionalities are design and deployed with the main aim of saving money or saving resource. However, there are some smart gadgets that have that initial whizz-bang effect but no long term efficiency, hence most of us still not have a smart fridge in our kitchen.

 

Is it safe? Can the internet of things be secured?

With everything new and exciting there can be downsides and some smart products have already shown some security issues. One of the biggest worries with this technology is the amount of personal data about people that is being collected on an hourly and daily basis. For instance, a smart meter can tell when you’re home and even what electronic products you are using whilst there.  This data is then shared and held in databases by companies.

Many a pundit is already expressing their concerns and making it clear that not enough is being done to build security and set privacy at an all-time high when it comes to IoT. The smaller products are more easily controllable in terms of security, but when you think on a bigger scale such as smart communities, cities, and even traffic signals it can get a little harder to contemplate. As soon as a financial benefit arises from hacking into these technologies someone, somewhere will begin, and companies and the government need to be ready and prepared!

But the quick answer is, IoT is relatively safe, you’re not going to face serious damage or a huge data breach, but it is one element to consider when switching over to become ‘smart’

 

What’s the future of IoT?

This is a very hard question to answer, and no amount of Googling will help you here. The future landscape of tech and its use of IoT is pretty unclear, yes we will all be using far more ‘smart’ devices but to what extent in our home and work life is still a hard one to predict.

A decade from now, everything could be connected, or only a matter of devices with clear benefits, such as smart meters.

It is impossible to predict what will happen in the future and anticipate the pace in which individuals and companies will adopt this technology – what I do know is that MIS AMS have adopted IoT and are seeing clear benefits so far for our clients and their tenants.  I anticipate that Housing Associations will be reaping the rewards of IoT, and in larger quantities as the years go by.