Internet of Things (IoT)

The internet of things is based on three elements: sensors that capture information of any kind and transmit it at appropriate intervals; the communications network that carries the messages; and systems that receive the information, store it, process it, analyse it or warn a human operator. It is a key technology for industry processes, personal applications, home automation, health monitoring, mobility and smart cities.

The Internet was born in 1969. For more than 25 years it was little more than an artefact of strategic and academic interest. It was a security network for the US military, designed by its scientific and technological research agency DARPA, as a resilient communication system that, in the event of nuclear war, could keep commanders in contact with units thanks to its system of non-linear and decentralised connections between nodes, all of equal rank. The loss of one would not prevent the next nodes from being reached by another path. For universities, which played a major role in its development (especially Stanford and UCLA), it became a perfect transport for exchanging information and academic papers.

The big change came 20 years later, when Tim Berners Lee launched the idea of the World Wide Web in 1989, with a description language for content (html), a comprehensible and easy-to-remember address system (urls), and a communications protocol for hypertext browsing (http). In just 10 years, the web, i.e. the internet, experienced an explosion of users and content as it became a vehicle for instantaneous or asynchronous contacts practically without borders, from people to people, groups or entities.

The next big phenomenon took place another 20 years later, when in 2009 the professor of the MIT Kevin Ashton coined the concept of the internet of things (IoT), to refer to a new use that was beginning to emerge and now far exceeds the hundreds of millions of communications per minute generated by humans: it is now machines talking to machines.

Releasing a bit of drama from the concept, machine-to-machine conversation need not be overly intelligent. It can range from the simple transmission of one piece of data contained in two bits every few minutes, to the constant exchange of information as complex as the machines are handling. But the overwhelming thing about the new phenomenon is that it is no longer hundreds of millions of communications per minute, but the magnitude jumps to billions.

The internet of things is based on three elements: sensors that capture information of any kind and transmit it at appropriate intervals; the communications network that carries the messages; and systems that receive the information, store it, process it, analyse it or warn a human operator, depending on the values, urgency and usefulness of the messages.

That is, a thermostat or a timer that turns an air conditioning system on and off based on temperature or a pre-set schedule is not part of the IoT world. If either device is connected to the network and every time it performs an action it sends a confirmation message to a server, then it is in the IoT realm, because it is transmitting data, whatever its value and importance, to another machine.

The breadth of the concept is expanding without limit. Industries with some degree of automation use IoT, more or less intensively, to monitor processes, the status of their machinery, and their warehouse stocks and production inventories. Or to monitor the safety of facilities. In cities, cameras are beginning to proliferate that, with some controversy, apply artificial intelligence to identify people or detect crowds, crowds or other problems and issue alerts.

Information sensors can be of many different types, almost anything you can imagine: temperature, light, pressure meters, motion sensors, invisible barriers (with laser or infrared), accelerometers to perceive vibrations, video or photographic cameras, in visible or non-visible light ranges...

In many industrial machinery there are sensors that control its key points to monitor if there are inadequate alterations in the operating parameters (excess temperature, or any other measurable symptom), sending the data in real time to a system. IA to perform predictive maintenance, knowing by its behaviour when a part is about to fail. The technician intervenes before the breakdown occurs and routine service visits are avoided.

The same strategy is used in buildings to control the maintenance of lifts and other installations that can be monitored, in trains, in aircraft engines (although in this case it is less common to send data in real time, which is usually downloaded on arrival at an airport).

Individuals, through applications installed on their mobile phone, can monitor their home and receive warning messages if there are any unforeseen disturbances, or interact on their own initiative to take a look at the children's room, turn lights and other devices on or off...

The technology has also started to be deployed in the healthcare field, for the care of recovering or chronically ill patients (e.g. internet-connected pacemakers) and the monitoring of elderly or disabled people who are often alone at home for long periods of time.

Another type of use that heralds the multiplication of IoT devices and traffic is the emergence of car-related services. City traffic can be managed with information from sensors that count vehicle density and parking spaces. And then there is the connected car. Since last year, it has been mandatory for new vehicles sold in Spain to include an automatic emergency call system in the event of an accident.

But that is only a rough approximation of the purpose of the connected car continuously broadcasting and receiving all kinds of data (location, speed, incidents, obstacles), which, with static sensors, helps to create a real-time portrait of the traffic. In turn, this portrait is fed back to each vehicle to help it plot its route. The information is shared over the internet and eventually, from car to car in close proximity, through a local network at the city level. This is a precursor to the arrival of robotic, driverless cars, for which it will be an essential aid to getting around the city.

Spain's role

In IoT technologies it can be understood that the hardware, the different types of sensors, is already undergoing a certain process of 'commoditisation'. There is mass production in countries specialising in production with which there is not much scope for competition. But in the design of systems and applications the possibilities are at their maximum.

The deployment of devices and the software layer to manage their usability only seems to require the specific training of good developers, specialised companies and people with the imagination to create an industry of customisable and tailor-made applications.