What is IOT? (Simple Explanation and Real-Life Examples)


Internet of Things
Internet of Things

IOT is an abbreviation for the Internet of Things; which means connecting all the things in the world to the internet and to other devices. You may ask, what does this sentence even mean? Or why does IoT matter? We will clarify as we get along.

Now, the Internet has brought about many wonderful benefits. In the early 2000s, when the internet was just gaining roots, we had cellphones that could only call or send texts. Then, smartphones which easily connect to the internet were invented.

Presently, from the comfort of our smartphones, we can read books, watch movies, video chat with friends, and get weather updates in real time; so long as we are connected to the internet. These benefits are not only limited to smartphones, but also laptops, desktops, tablets, and many other things as we will find out in this article. The internet gives these devices an ability to communicate.

Having an internet connection allows a device to send and/or receive information. The device can then act on the information received hence being smart which is the whole point of IoT. IoT brings about smart things.

Take your smartphone for instance, it’s connected to the weather stations around the world; it uses inbuilt sensors to pinpoint your location and give you weather alerts based on the information it receives from the weather stations.

Communicating with other devices and acting on the information received is what IoT is all about. Your smartphone makes a part of the Internet of Things and we will get into more later. Will IoT have an impact on your life?  Read on to find out.

How IoT started and its evolution

The idea about machines communicating has been around for a while; it’s what fueled the development of the internet as a part of DARPA in 1962. While the internet is a significant component of the Internet of Things, IoT itself came about much later. The term IoT was first coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton.

1974 – ATM

Before the IoT concept came into existence, earlier examples of IoT were up and running, although with no names. In 1974, the first ATM went online. Since ATMs could communicate with each other via the internet, they are among the very first form of IoT devices.

In the early 1980s, there was a Coca Cola machine at the Carnegie Melon university that had its refrigerated unit connected to the internet. It could allow programmers check if there was a drink available, or if a drink was cold before they came over to pick one.

In 2000, LG Electronics launched the first internet connected refrigerator. The refrigerator was as a result of a tech project that started in 1997. It included a camera for scanning and keeping track of what was inside the refrigerator, an LCD information window that provided information such as freshness of stored foods, inside temperature, nutrition information and recipes.

The whole point of IoT is for devices to connect to the internet and communicate, and as you can see, its history dates back even before the name was coined. This shows how the IoT concept was already useful way before its naming.

Internet Protocols define how devices communicate on the internet by giving them a unique identity. The very first internet protocol versions, IPv0 through IPv3 were experimental, used between 1977 and 1979. The fourth version, IPv4 is the most dominant, currently used in every communication on the internet. However, it had a problem of not having enough IP addresses to accommodate all the things that will comprise IoT, which, as we’ve stated, are practically everything in the world that can connect to the internet. IPv5 was only used by an experimental streaming protocol.

In 1998, the development of IPv6 began. IPv6 is the latest internet protocol; a fundamental piece in facilitating IoT through its address space expansion. Steve Leibson, who lectures occasionally at the Computer History Museum, says that the address space expansion can allow “to assign an IPv6 address to every atom on the surface of the earth, and still have enough addresses left to do another 100+ earths.” This means that we will have enough internet addresses to accommodate any number of IoT devices.

As of 2019, IoT has evolved into a system using multiple technologies. It is forming a digital transformation in multiple industries, using the internet for wireless communication, and even facilitating big data – which is just a collection of large amounts of structured and unstructured data.

An Overview of How IoT Works

When we talk about Internet of Things, ‘Things’ can be anything from people, animals, goods, object, machines, appliances, vehicles, buildings, soil, plants and more; all of which collect and share data. For these things to connect to the internet and share data, they must first have a unique identity, which is provided for by the IPv6 internet protocol. Secondly, they must have a way of communication; which is provided for by the internet through a wired or wireless connection. Thirdly, they need sensors to collect data about their environment which they can share with other devices.

Consider human beings; they have a mouth for communicating. But how can you describe the taste of some soup to someone without first tasting with your tongue? A human being thus has five sensors to help pick data from the environment; tongue(tasting), eye(seeing), ear(hearing), nose(smelling), and hand(touching). So, in this example, once your tongue tastes the soup, it relays the data to your brain, which then processes it and helps you form words that come out through your mouth – mouth being a means of communication.

The above human example explains how an IoT works. The final piece for IoT to work is an IoT platform which all IoT devices connect to. Just like the IoT devices, the IoT platform must also be connected to the internet. An IoT device has a gateway that establishes a secure connection to the IoT platform. Once the sensors in IoT devices around the world have collected data, they pass it to the IoT platform for processing. The platform is like the brain in human beings. The neurons between your tongue and brain can be compared to the gateway that links an IoT device to the platform.

Consider chairs in a cinema hall with embedded pressure sensors. These sensors send data to the platform when someone sits on them, or when someone leaves the chair, or when someone is fidgeting. Through the data collected from these sensors, developers can tell how captivating the movie was by the percentage of people who sat through the whole movie, or who left their chair early.

Sensors

Thanks to great advancements in technology, more sensors to achieve different purposes continue to be developed; moreover, the embedded circuitry is getting smaller and cheaper. Consider Geographical Positioning Systems; initially they were too big and cost millions of dollars. Only government military arms would own one. Presently, GPS systems fit on tiny electronic chips and can be found in smartphones under $50. GPS is a type of sensor that pinpoints the exact location of an IoT device. Some sensors used in IoT devices include;

  • Temperature sensors – detect physical change in the amount of heat in its environment. It’s used in refrigerators, A/C control, etc.
  • Proximity sensors – detect the presence or absence of nearby objects without actually getting in contact with them. It’s used in smartphones, autonomous cars, radar system, etc.
  • Pressure Sensors – detects the pressure applied to an object. It’s used in water flow systems, heating systems, etc.
  • Water quality sensors – detects the quality of water in water distribution systems. It’s used to check organic elements, chlorine residual, pH level, etc.
  • Smoke sensors – detects smoke in the air. It’s used in HVAC systems to detect fire or gas incidences.
  • Gas Sensors – detect changes in air quality or presence of other gases. It’s used monitoring hazardous or toxic gases in mines, etc.
  • IR sensors – (infrared sensors) detects changes by emitting or sensing an infrared radiation. It’s used in IoT projects such as health to monitor blood pressure and blood flow, smartphones, remote controls, etc.
  • Motion detection sensors – detects physical movement of an object. It’s used in security systems to detect intrusion, etc.
  • Gyroscope sensors – measure the angular rate, i.e. speed of rotation around an axis. It’s used in car navigation systems, drones, robotic controls, etc.
  • Optical sensors – detects the quantity of light rays in the surroundings. It’s used in environmental monitoring, aerospace, etc.
  • Humidity sensors – detects the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere. It’s used in devices in meteorology stations.
  • Accelerometer sensors – measures acceleration experienced by an object. It’s used to detect if an object is moving like fleet monitoring. Millions of smartphones have accelerometers which help detect tilting and vibrations.
  • Chemical sensors – detect changes in chemical compositions. It’s used to detect chemical leakage in swimming pools, pollution level in rivers, etc.

The above sensors, when embedded in an IoT device, collect data then converts to an electrical signal, which it passes to an IoT platform. An IoT platform has advanced algorithms trained to understand and process disparate data. Once it’s done processing the data, it passes the relevant signal to a system administrator or another IoT device on the network to perform a relevant action.

For example, a smoke sensor can detect an amount of smoke in the air, then pass this information to the IoT platform. The IoT platform analyzes the data from the sensor then decides the fire is not too big, so it sends a signal to a water sprinkler in the room to dispense a given amount of water, just enough to put off the fire. In this example, the IoT devices work together to extinguish a fire before it spreads. Furthermore, it just uses enough water to end the fire without wasting too much water. If this has not yet convinced you enough on how IoT impacts us positively, below are more ways.

How can IoT improve our lives?

So, does IoT matter? The simple answer is yes. IoT is improving our lives in ways only limited to our imaginations. IoT can help us:  

Monitor things

Using a pressure sensor on your toddler’s bed, you can monitor their movements, when he sleeps, turns or wakes.

If you have a heart problem, you can have a wearable cardiac monitor. It detects changes in your heartbeat and relays the information to the relevant platform which then sends you a message on what to do through a mobile app. Using the information gathered, it can predict if you are heading for problems, hence saving a life. IoT can be used to monitor other areas of your health. It can check what you eat by monitoring the nutritional content of foods in your fridge and offer insights on what you can eat to improve your health.

In health and fitness, IoT can help you monitor your fitness progress by recording your daily activities, cardiovascular fitness, blood pressure, and more. Moreover, the data collected through these sensors can help improve performance efficiency in sports.

A case in agriculture where you can manage your farms using IoT. IoT sensors embedded in the soil can detect if the plants need watering by monitoring the amount of moisture in the soil. The sensors can send a signal to the irrigation system in your farm to start watering the plants, or it can send you an alert on your phone. Moreover, the irrigation can receive information from the weather station that it’s going to rain, so it won’t have to activate your reservoirs, rather it will wait for the rains to do the watering. By doing so, IoT can improve the quality and quantity of farm produce.

Search for things

Search

A working example of this is the Google’s find my device platform that helps you find your misplaced smartphone. The platform can send signals to the phone to make it play a loud sound, secure it, or erase its data completely.

Another example is having a GPS chip on your car keys and assigning a tag to it. Then you only need to get your smartphone and issue a voice command, “where are my car keys.” The phone will route the location of the keys from your position and even display a map to show you directions.

Your pet can have a locator chip. If it goes out in the field to play, you only speak to your phone, “where is my pet [insert pet name 😂].” And the phone displays the pet’s location on a map. Or find your small kid who has gone out to play but has a locator chip in his wristband.

In these scenarios, it’s two IoT devices communicating and sharing information – your phone and a location sensor on your pet/keys/kid’s wristband. IoT helps improve life by minimizing time we spend searching for things that can easily be located.

Connect with things

You can walk up to any objects and learn about it. This will be beneficial to children who are just trying to learn things, or even adults trying to learn names of things in different languages. A device with an image sensor can be pointed at an object and pull up information about it.

Manage things

We can minimize chaos at a car park if we know where we parked our car, and the easiest route to exit the car park by consolidating data from the car’s location and the exit points.

Assuming you run a taxi company, you can fit your cars with sensors to detect things like brake fluid, engine fluid, tyre pressure, oil level, distance covered, how long the door stays open, etc. The sensors then send data to your admin panel. You can automate the panel to either send the driver instructions to get the car inspected or personally contact the driver based on the data received. IoT can help you manage a lot more from the comfort of your smartphone, hence making your life easier.

Control things

This is the era of smart homes and smart things, thanks to IoT. You can control anything in your home from your smartphone, remotely. You can connect all your electronics to a smart hub which relays information to a mobile app on your smartphone. You can set commands in the smart hub such as turning on the lights when it gets dark – for this command to work, the hub will have to receive a signal from an optical sensor. You can instruct the smart hub to turn on the A/C when temperatures change in the living room – it will have to receive signals from a temperature sensor.

The above applies to smart cities. The control from IoT devices can help reduce waste and improve efficiency of energy use.

You realize all these devices are doing actions without human interactions; as long as you have set the actions to be performed based on the received data. In this case, an IoT platform that connects all the devices in your home is the smart hub – all communication goes through it. You can override these instructions from your app; say you are going for a vacation, hence don’t need the A/C to turn on. You can easily send instructions to your smart hub and it turns off the A/C. An example of an IoT platform is Samsung’s SmartThings Hub – It connects your home theatre, TV, refrigerator, lights, washing machine, cooker, water dispenser, and more.

Make predictions

When we consolidate data from various IoT environmental sensors such as humidity sensor, pressure sensors, air quality sensors, and accelerometer sensors, we can predict natural disasters with a near accuracy. Dublin uses smart sensors to give an early warning of flooding in areas, allowing citizens to take precautions.

Additional examples of IoT devices used in daily life

If a physical object can connect to the internet, it can be transformed into an IoT.

  • If you have a light bulb that can be switched on or off using a smartphone app, then it is an IoT. Philips Hue is an example of an IoT bulb.
  • A child’s monitor that sends an alert to your phone when the child wakes up.
  • A jet engine keeps collecting data and sending to engineers at control towers about the state of the plane.
  • Wearables that send data about your fitness activities to a smartphone’s fitness app.
  • In farming (monitoring poultry and livestock). IoT devices gather data about the health of domesticated and relay to the farmers.
  • Smart cities – IoT used in smart surveillance, street lighting, water distribution, automated transportation and more.
  • Connected cars – use sensors to optimize the comfort of passengers as well as detect if the car needs to go for inspection.
  • Thermostats e.g. Nest Thermostat that learns your family’s routines and automatically adjusts the temperature based on when someone is home or not.
  • August Smart lock is another IoT device that can receive instructions from your smartphone to lock or unlock your door.

Statistics of usages of IoT

The number of people adopting IoT devices continues to rise every day. In a statistics research carried out in 2016, there were more than 4.7 billion things connected to the internet. As of 2018, there were more than 7 billion connected IoT devices. IoT analytics predicts 11.6 billion devices will be connected by 2021, and 21 billion IoT devices by 2025. These numbers do not include smartphones.

Consumer spending is expected to go up to $236B by 2020. In a research carried out in 2015 by PwC, about $6T was estimated to be spend in the IoT industry between 2015 and 2020.

Various industries including Manufacturing, Transportation & Logistics, and Utilities are projected to spend up to $40B each on IoT services, systems, and platforms. The IoT market is similarly growing exponentially. The market is predicted to be worth $581 billion in 2020.

What the future of IoT has in store for us

Technology grows at an exponential rate. Considering the level of technology we had at the time IoT first became a thing, and what we have now, I can comfortably say, the future has great things in store for us. Currently, we have big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, which we didn’t have in the late ‘90s. These are technologies that are making IoT a reality; i.e. the ability to intelligently process massive data from sensors using AI and ML algorithms, then return accurate and relevant instructions to IoT devices is truly amazing.

Another fast-growing technology is blockchain, which is a decentralized network of computers. We are looking at a future where blockchain will be integrated in IoT devices to solve security issues of the centralized nature of current IoT systems.

We are looking at a future where we can monitor the health of individuals and save more lives, minimize energy costs and work towards a green energy society hence save our planet from global warming, manage traffic jams and minimize time spend in traffic, improve agriculture and farm produce, develop smart cities and homes, manage our lives better and save time to spend with our loved ones or do what matters. The whole purpose of IoT is to bridge the gap between the internet and the physical world. One certainty is that Internet of Things will change our lives.  

Rooney

I am a full-stack web developer with over 13 years of experience. I love learning new things and are passionate about JavaScript development both on the front-end and back-end.

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