The “Internet of things”

Published in The Hindu, Sep 22, 2010 by Tinniam V Ganesh –

We are progressively moving towards a more connected world, using a variety of devices to connect to each other and to the Net. We are connected to the network through the mundane telephone, mobile phone, desktop, laptop or iPads. We use the devices for sending, receiving, communicating or for our entertainment. In 2005, the International Telecommunications Standardisation Sector (ITU-T), which coordinates standards for telecommunications on behalf of the International Telecommunication Union, came up with a seminal report, “The Internet of Things.” The report visualises a highly interconnected world made of tiny passive or intelligent devices that connect to large databases and to the “network of networks” or the Internet.

This ‘Internet of Things’ or M2M (machine-to-machine) network adds another dimension to the existing notions of networks. It envisages an anytime, anywhere, anyone, anything network bringing about a complete ubiquity to computing. In Mark Weiser’s classic words, “the most profound technologies are those that disappear and weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it”. This will result in the metamorphosis of the network from a dumb pipe to intelligence at the edges. Embedded intelligence in the things themselves will further enhance the power of the network.

The portents of this highly revolutionary technology are already visible. The devices in this M2M network will be made up of passive elements, sensors and actuators that communicate with the network. Soon everyday articles from tyres to toasters will have these intelligent devices embedded in them.

RFID tags

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) was the early and pivotal enabler of this technology, with a tiny tag responding in the presence of a receiver which emits a signal. Retailers keep track of the goods going out of warehouses to their stores with this technology.

In a typical scenario one can imagine a retail store in which all items are RFID tagged. A shopping cart fitted with a receiver can automatically track all items placed in the cart for immediate payment and check-out. Another interesting application is in the payment of highway tolls. Similarly, plans are already afoot for embedding intelligent devices in the tyres of automobiles. The devices will be used for measuring the tyre pressure, speed etc., and warn the drivers of low pressure or tyre wear and tear. The devices will send data to the network, which can be processed.

This technology is also well suited for insurance companies which can give discounts to safe drivers based on the data sent by these sensors. Other promising applications include an implantable device capable of remote monitoring of patients with heart problems. It can warn the physician when it detects an irregularity in the patient’s heart rhythm.

The ‘Internet of Things’ can also play an important role in monitoring the stress and the load on bridges and forewarn when the stress is too great and a collapse is imminent. In mines, the sensors can send real-time info on the toxicity of the air, the structural strength of the walls or the possibility of flooding.

The day is not far off when devices will connect to the Internet to monitor and control the environment, improving our daily lives and warning us of impending hazards.

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