on June 18th, 2013

Dear Colleagues,

Objects around you are increasingly being embedded with a myriad of sensors and actuators – from your roadway, body to your industrial process. Data from these sensors is then being transmitted over the internet using the familiar TCP/IP protocols.

There are incredible opportunities opening up in engineering and industry to apply these technologies and data to your work. When formerly inanimate objects can sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for discerning what is happening in remote environments and making decisions on the data. And quickly. It should be added that much of the decisionmaking is without any human intervention at all.

You are already probably aware of the tiny microcameras that you can swallow to view your gut to pick up sources of illness. Or remote farming equipment that takes into account weather and rain conditions. Cars that brake automatically when detecting an object ahead. Billboards that adjust their messages based on consumers passing.

For better or worse this will affect you – no matter whether you are an operator on a process plant or marketing director of a blue chip company.

Six Applications Lurking Out there
According to McKinsey there are six types of applications with the Internet of Things:

1. Tracking Behaviour
Sensors track usage of equipment ranging from cars to the level of thrust of a jet engine to products moving through supply chains (using RFID). This data is then relayed back to make decisions on fees to charge for usage of a jet engine to instructions to adjust shipments of goods.

2. Environmental (or Situational) Awareness
Data from sensors (e.g. video/audio/flow) can indicate soil moisture, ocean currents, weather, rain, traffic intensity or intruders in a particular zone. Action can then be taken to re-route traffic or alert people affected.

3. Mass Gathering of Complex Data for Decision Making
Masses of sensors can gather data - for example for oil and gas and mining exploration (to locate high grade deposits) and feed this back for mapping. analysis, and decisionmaking. Similarly, with gathering data on thousands of shoppers on buying habits. From a health perspective, there is an opportunity to continuously gather patient blood pressure, heart rate and sugar levels; analyse this complex maze of data and then take action.

4. Process Optimization
We have been monitoring data from instrumentation for years but the lowering cost and smaller size makes for even better process control and optimization of flow, level, temperature, pressure and even faster ways of processing previously inaccessible data for slow moving analytical data (gas chromatography). Lower levels of process variation means savings in cost. Also increased safety.

5. Smart Metering and the Smart Grid
Smart meters are increasingly being used to provide details of energy usage and real time costs to consumers and power companies. And allows one to reduce  one’s costs by using power at low usage times.

6. Complex Autonomous Systems
Application of sensors and actuators to the car industry means automatic breaking and eventually self driving cars (perhaps allowing us to cut down on the million deaths per year due to car accidents). Or allow robots to roam freely in complex dangerous underground environments making their own decisions about where to go and what to do.

Big Concerns
Obviously one of the major concerns is the privacy of the data gathered and rogue sensors/actuators (robots ?) endangering life and limb.

These technologies are not pie in the sky but being rolled out today. See if you can apply them in your next project.

Thanks to McKinsey Quarterly March 2010 for an interesting article.

John F. Kennedy's comment could be applicable to the Internet of Things: We need (wo)men who can dream of things that never were.

Yours in engineering learning,


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