According to a report released this week by Vodafone, the number of large scale Internet of Things projects has doubled in the last 12 months, with twice as many companies running more than 50,000 connected devices.
“It’s the most interesting space in which an engineer can currently work,” says Erik Brenneis, who is the director of Vodafone’s Internet of Things business. “Companies actually see a shortage of resources in IoT development as one of the obstacles to even stronger growth in the coming years.”
But the IoT is much more than a job opportunity for engineers. It’s becoming mainstream, with the IoT Barometer revealing more positive opinions among the 1,278 respondents from 13 different countries. “I think IoT is pretty much mainstream now,” says Brenneis. “It’s not that we have all the devices on the street yet, but almost all the customers I talk to say, ‘Look, we need to somehow connect our product’.
The applications are almost endless. Take energy, for example. An oil and gas company in North America is using IoT to remotely monitor the pressure of its customers’ oil wells. This means engineers don’t have to be dispatched to check valves, and that they can monitor up to ten rigs at a time, increasing efficiency and reducing the risks of human error.
Healthcare is another beneficiary. In New Zealand, a medical provider is using IoT in its ambulance service to give dispatchers real-time updates on the locations of nearby ambulances and hospitals with capacity. The system can track and transmit the conditions of patients to everyone involved so those in the hospital can get ready before they arrive.
In factories and warehouses, IoT can help to track trucks and stock, and help the company to avoid traffic jams. That’s also a key driver of the massive growth in IoT solutions for cars, which have led the way. Connected cars can now have as many as 100 sensors – and, as we covered last week, it’s starting to change the way they’re designed.
“If you purchase a car in five years’ time, you’ll be looking for certain key features which won’t be possible to provide without IoT,” says a German car manufacturer in the IoT Barometer report. “Today if you buy a car and if you live in an area where there is a lot of congestion, you need a real-time traffic information system telling you how to avoid traffic jams… We went to the board and told them about the new system based on IoT and said we would lose sales unless we had that feature. Once people have that feature they don’t want to give it up … so we implemented it swiftly within all car lines.”
Threats and opportunities
Brenneis is predicting further growth in the next five years as new technologies come into play. Great strides have been made in ‘narrowband IoT,’ which allows devices to communicate using less power, thereby extending battery life. (Other technological advancements could get rid of battery life altogether, as we explore in the next issue of Professional Engineering).
As these devices become smaller, cheaper and longer-lasting, engineers working on new devices need to sit up and take notice. “They should actually be thinking about how they can design communications into these things,” says Brenneis. “Things that aren’t connected don’t enable to the customers to be in touch with their companies.”
He sounded a warning note. “Think defensively. Imagine there’s someone sitting in an office in Silicon Valley thinking, ‘How can I disrupt this industry?’ There are lots of examples of people who never thought about how they could be disrupted – look at the hotel industry with AirBnB. Don’t think you’re safe no matter what you do.”
One issue that was sometimes swept to the side in the early days of IoT hype is security, but people are much more aware of it now. It’s important – 67% of companies that had adopted IoT solutions said their technology was mission-critical, and that a security breach would be disastrous. It’s been the top concern for companies for the last five years of the report.
“Nine or ten years ago people thought they were safe,” says Brenneis. “They thought, ‘Who would be interested in me?’. Now, everybody is aware you need to address this.” He says that security needs to be designed into IoT products from the start, rather than treated as an afterthought – it can be built into the hardware and software.
The Internet of Things is here to stay. “The penetration will be wider,” he says. “I believe that basically almost every device will be connected in the future. This is the trend we’re seeing.” It can help make our devices smarter, and by allowing them to talk to each other, could make us safer too, says Brenneis. “I think IoT can play a role in taking risk out of the world.”