We are all born in an amazing time. Especially the last two decades have seen a tremendous advances in the software and hardware required to access information globally via the internet and to connect each other using devices such as mobile phones. The last few years especially have seen a significant shift in the way people connect. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have opened new channels for sharing information. Mobile phones have transformed into ‘smart phones’ with substantial hardware configurations and a myriad of connectivity options. While the internet, smart phones and tablets have revolutionized our life style, the ability to connect ‘things’ is revolutionizing our future.
What is Internet of Things?
To put it simply, Internet of things is a ‘connected’ system comprising of ‘things’ that can send and receive data and sometimes respond accordingly. ‘Things’ here can be devices with certain sensory, analytic and communication capabilities(we will consider what each of these capabilities mean in detail). A thing can be something as small as a micro-chip device which can be attached to something else. In certain cases, the things can be attached to organic entities like us(yes, we the humans), our pets, plants etc.
Let us take a not so distant future scenario that helps us to understand and reinforce this concept. Lets say every morning, you go for running and run for roughly 3km in total. You wear a watch which has some capabilities of communicating with your home. When you leave the home, your watch starts counting the distance. When you are half the way, your watch sends a message back to your home signaling that you are coming back. Your home is ‘smart enough’ and turns on the water heater and the coffee maker. When you arrive back, you have some nice coffee waiting and the hot water is ready for a reviving shower. This all might sound a little spooky and mesmerizing, but in reality we are not that far away from applications like these.
How did it all start?
Internet of things is actually a convergence of multiple technologies. The below individual technologies contributed to the convergence of the capabilities of all of them, which resulted in the Internet of Things:
- The Internet
- Wireless communication
- Embedded systems
- Electro-Electrical and Electro-Mechanical systems that are compact
In addition to the above, introduction of Internet Protocol Version 6(IPv6) has increased the unique IP addresses to 340 trillion, trillion, trillion which means that a lot(actually a lot, lot and a lot) of ‘things’ can be allocated unique IP addresses. What this essentially means is that more things can be connected together and can be provided the capabilities of communication and action. Kevin Ashton, who played a key role in creating a global standard for Radio-frequency Identification(RFID), invented the term ‘the Internet of Things’ in 1999.
As the above mentioned technologies evolved, research started on the possibility of interconnecting the devices, analyzing the data corresponding to them and providing the capabilities of control and action. Various fields like Industrial Production, Inventory Control, Safety Systems and medicine started seeing the potential of the Internet of Things. With the on-going advances in hardware, software and security, the Internet of Things is making its way into our day to day lives.
What does the Internet of Things comprise of?
In essence, the Internet of Things is a network of devices that can send and receive information. These devices might have certain sensory capabilities using which they are capable of collecting certain information and passing the same. They might also be equipped with electro-mechanical capabilities using which they can control the functioning of a system.
Let us consider one more example of the Internet of Things which will help us to understand the composition better:
Consider a not so distant future scenario in which a diabetic is implanted with a device that can continuously monitor the blood sugar levels. Once a day, this device will send the data corresponding to the person’s hourly sugar levels to the doctor. In case the blood sugar levels drops below a certain threshold, it will message the doctor’s phone and will also notify the ‘smart fridge’ regarding the same. The smart fridge responds back by sounding an alarm and will also suggest the patient to take an appropriate juice to restore back the sugar levels. In case the sugar levels increase beyond a threshold, the device will once again message the doctor and will once again notify the fridge to warn the patient. The fridge will not only notify the patient of the excessive sugar levels, but will also suggest the appropriate insulin dosage to be taken to control the sugar levels.
Let us consider each of the ‘things’ and their possible composition in detail from the above example:
- Implanted Device - First, this has to be designed and implanted in such a way that it does not obstruct the normal functioning of the body. It has to contain a blood sugar level sensor, a memory for storing this information, capability to hold a unique IP address(using which it is identified by other systems) and the circuitry for sending messages to other devices like the doctor’s phone or the patient’s fridge.
- The doctor’s phone - This can be a smart phone running an app that has got the capability to interact with the patient’s implant.
- The Smart Fridge - The fridge consists of a bar code scanner, capability to hold a unique IP address, memory for storing the received information, ability to send and receive messages and an alarm/speaker . The user just needs to scan the bar code/QR code of the objects like fruit juices and medicines that are placed inside the fridge using which the fridge keeps track of the items inside. Based on the blood sugar level received from the implant device, the fridge can alert the user and suggest the appropriate juice or insulin dosage.
The above system is just one of the million possibilities that can be created with the internet of things. Think of a inventory control system where a device keeps track of the inventory and sends out appropriate notifications when the stock goes low. The capabilities are literally limitless.
For the developer in us
All the futuristic capabilities outlined above sound too good to believe, but there are some amazing operating systems and open source projects already pushing the capabilities of the Internet of things. The below are some of the most famous operating systems and solutions for the Internet of things:
Contiki: An open source OS for the internet of things with amazing capabilities to connect low cost and low power microcontrollers to the Internet. Contiki fully support both IPv4 and IPv6 and has support for many low-power wireless standards. Contiki applications are written in standard C and it runs on a range of wireless devices.
Riot-OS: With programming support for C and C++ and capabilities like multi-threading and modularity, Riot is an easy choice for embedded programming. Riot also offers features such as maximum energy efficiency and real-time capability.
Spark: Spark is another open source operating system with tools designed for everyone. It offers features such as a Web IDE, Command Line Interface and a REST API. Developers can program in C/C++, Wiring(the language of the Arduino tool) or even the ARM assembly.
Windows Embedded: It is a Microsoft based solution offering for data connectivity and analytics. It offers cloud capabilities and various business intelligence tools. There is a very interesting line of Windows Embedded dedicated for automobiles called the ‘Windows Embedded Automotive’ for providing extensive in-car experiences that keep the drivers connected and well informed.
In addition to the above, there are many other operating systems and platforms exclusively targeted for the Internet of Things.
We have seen an overview of the Internet of things and what are the components and capabilities of it. While the various scenarios that we have seen above might seem a little futuristic, we are not too far from them. With a range of operating systems and platforms already in action exclusively for the Internet of things, we are all marching towards a ‘Wholly Connected Future’.