The future of IoT: Two research advances from the lab

By Joe Mariani

Excerpt: Businesses need to keep pace with technology developments to stay competitive.
In today’s environment of technology-driven change, businesses have a vital need to know what the next technologies will be. The sooner a company knows what technologies are coming, the sooner it can begin to build business models and strategies to take advantage of them. New technologies can emerge from any number of sources, from the military to a student’s dorm room. But many of the cutting edge advances that will likely drive future change are also currently experiments in the labs of computer scientists. This blog will highlight two such research advances which point towards the future of the Internet of Things (IoT) and all of the industries that it touches.

Coming soon, software defined super sensors
IoT is fundamentally about taking information about the physical world, making it digital so that it can be analyzed, and then acting on the information back in the real world to improve results. This physical-digital-physical loop can only begin when sensors translate physical phenomena into digital information.The decreasing cost of sensors and other digital components have largely driven the explosion of IoT in the last half-decade. But they also represent a limiting factor for IoT’s further growth: each physical phenomenon we wish to measure seems to require a new sensor. If you design an IoT device and want to change or improve its function over time, you can always upgrade the software, but you cannot change its ability to create digital data about the world unless you physically add a new sensor. Want to measure acceleration? That is one sensor. Temperature? That is a different sensor. In a world where digital technology often changes rapidly to meet changing demand or operational conditions, this can be a considerable limitation.Researchers at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University may have found a solution.1 Rather than using one sensor to directly measure one physical phenomenon, they have engineered a suite of multiple sensors that together can indirectly measure many different types of events in the world. Here is what that means, in plain language: in the past, if you wanted to know if you accidentally left the sink running, you would have needed a sensor physically attached to the faucet to let you know if the valve was open and the water running or not. But a suite of “general purpose” sensors including a microphones, accelerometers, and light sensors can detect the signature sound of the running water, and even tell you how much water is running so you can decide if closing the tap immediately is more important than your current task. That may not sound too exciting until you realize that the same suite of sensors can also indirectly tell if an auto-body has been sufficiently coated with paint by listening to the spray gun or measuring the emissions of robot arms moving parts through a factory. Even more important, when a production line is upgraded to create a new product or a new measurement is needed, the plant manager would not need to purchase or install an entirely new suite of sensors. Simply teach the software a new signature and the same sensors can monitor a much broader number of actions, all without having to physically attach a new device to anything.

This research represents another important step in the IoT becoming “software defined:” the elements of the technology can be repurposed or improved by mere changes to software. This not only increases the rate at which technologies can change and adjust, but also allows businesses that use such technologies to become more agile in how they respond to customer demand or market shifts.

Free communication by harnessing radio waves
The technical challenges of IoT do not end when information is created. That information is typically useless unless it can be communicated to those who need it. When communicating data from austere or remote environments, the power and size requirements of transmitters capable of sending transmissions can be a serious burden. Devices may be too large to fit in key areas or require frequent costly maintenance trips to change batteries. Finding a low power, reliable communication solution can help IoT penetrate new industries and find new uses.

One research team recently proposed one novel solution to this problem. In the modern world, we are bathed in radio waves at every moment.2 TV signals, radio stations, cellular signals, and other sources broadcast RF energy across the country. Rather than wasting energy creating new radio waves, researchers have proposed harnessing those pre-existing waves that are already beaming across the environment. They have created a device that can scatter ambient RF energy from TV, radio, and cell towers in a controlled manner. This creates a signal that a reader can detect at a distance of up to 50 meters. The concept is similar to how RFID tags work, only without the need for a specialized RFID reader beaming out energy. This approach to communication could help IoT applications reach more remote areas or smaller sizes than previously possible.

Where to from here?
We often think that technology must overcome large technical hurdles to evolve and do new things. And certainly, such intractable challenges do exist. However, every day, new ideas like those above are emerging that can shape the future of technology. As these advances push the boundaries of the possible, they also increasingly suggest that the limiting factor for IoT implementation is likely not going to be technical challenges, but rather an old business model. In other words, if your organization is thinking about implementing IoT, the driver should not be new technology – however sleek and cutting edge. Rather, begin with a business need, then identify the information needed to support that business need, then it is possible to identify the specific technology needed to gather that information. New technology can remove barriers to new business models, while new business models can drive lasting change.

1 Laput, Zhang, and Harrison. Synthetic Sensors: Towards General-Purpose Sensing. CHI ’17: Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Pgs 3986-3999.
2 Yang, Gummeson, and Sample. Riding the Airways: Ultra-Wideband Ambient Backscatter via Commercial Broadcast Systems. Disney Research Pittsburgh.

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