10 Companies and Municipalities that Are Harnessing the Internet of Things to Run Smarter Cities
Many of the devices we interact with today are enabled by computers and connected to the Internet. Much of the popular interest in the Internet of Things (IoT) focuses on consumer electronics, with everything from smart refrigerators to thermostats, personal fitness equipment, cars, and even front door locks that "talk" to each other and their owners. Here, marketers and advertisers are particularly avid for the data that can be gleaned from this interconnectivity.
While this exchange of information may revolutionize personal lives in the future, the real action today is in the business trenches, with rapid developments among vendors to address the operational needs of municipalities and organizations. Data overload, and the problems it can present, is driving the urgency in these end markets. When a huge number of nodes are connected via the Internet, the challenge arises in attempting to understand and translate the data that is being collected. The key to optimizing efficiency is collecting and analyzing data in near real time, so problems can be quickly identified and addressed. Data hub technology is being developed to analyze and coordinate this information.
Using Big Data to Run Smarter Cities
Earlier this year, a group of big companies joined forces to address these issues, forming the new Industrial Internet Consortium. One of the first efforts is a program by AT&T and IBM to integrate digital solutions for the infrastructure of cities in order to improve urban planning and reduce costs. Here, AT&T will provide network connectivity and IBM will provide the software and integration.
Among the companies’ goals is to address traffic management and parking capabilities by analyzing patterns in real time. Going well beyond improving resident convenience — identifying bottlenecks, for example, so traffic can be rerouted — the technology and analysis also have the potential for improving the rapid and efficient movement of emergency vehicles and first responders.
Other examples of device interoperability being explored by the Consortium include:
- Cisco’s collaboration with companies to improve safety and security by connecting machines in industrial environments;
- Pitney Bowes’ work to improve API management, cloud- and mobile-based services, customer communications, Big Data and global networking of hardware devices;
- SpaceCurve’s efforts to take data from individual machines, and connect it with overall historical data to gain predictive knowledge about machine performance;
- BlackBerry’s Project Ion, which is working on ways to connect medical equipment with data centers and mobile devices used by doctors.
Some cities are moving forward without assistance from the Consortium. The Toronto Intelligent Transportation Systems Centre has implemented a method to improve traffic flow with smart signals. Tests of the system on 60 downtown Toronto intersections at rush hour showed a reduction in delays by up to 40 percent, with travel times cut by as much as 26 percent.
Among other IoT possibilities, utility companies can more closely monitor energy usage. In Charlotte, N.C., a private-sector effort has connected 68 buildings in the downtown business area into an IoT network that analyzes sensor data about energy use. It is estimated that the program, begun in 2011, will reduce energy consumption in these buildings by 20 percent over the ensuing five years. Considering the local cost of electricity, this could save about $44 million and prevent 220,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere.
Public lighting is also feeling the effects of a world in which the IoT is pervasive. In the past, the replacement of burned-out street lights has depended upon citizen notification. Technology enabled by the IoT can now identify, and even predict, light outages so that governments and municipalities can more efficiently replace street lights, thus saving time and money. And during low-traffic nighttime hours, sensors can anticipate traffic flow, turning on highway lights ahead as traffic builds, and turning them off when the roads are empty.
Greater Security, Safety
However, the rapid proliferation of connected things — systems, machines, equipment, networks and devices — creates a significant need for greater security. An IoT solution could connect things like access badges, cameras, phones and gates directly into network data, allowing for easier monitoring, recording and responding to unauthorized activities. Solutions could be extended to suppliers, partners, customers and other stakeholders so that the right people have the right access to the right things.
But physical security isn’t the only issue. The future could see cyber security risks multiply because of the way software solutions will be delivered. Consulting firm Frost & Sullivan sees heightened security risks, which include the theft of data and business intelligence, in such trends as cloud computing, mobile computing and Big Data.
As for industrial safety, consider the example of Union Pacific Railroad, which has to monitor and maintain hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles of track, much of it in remote areas. The company is investing heavily in IoT technology that analyzes the data that is collected by sensors along its tracks in near real time. These Web-connected sensors communicate with accelerometers on trains to monitor bumps along the way, which may indicate a bad section of track. With this technology, the company says it's reduced the number of train derailments caused by failed bearings by 75 percent.
Another industry facing the challenge of monitoring remote locations is oil and gas, with far-flung wells and exploratory sites. ConocoPhillips is investing in ways to measure and analyze remotely the efficiencies of its drilling bits along the drill line, to quickly adjust things like bit speed and pressure. The company has projected that it will save about $250 million annually in drilling costs as a result.
Other challenges certainly remain before the full potential of the IoT is realized. For one thing, installing the technology to collect data in near real time can be an expensive proposition. Installing sensors, maintaining them and powering them can be costly. Then, the issue of data quality and collection is a concern; gathering data is one thing, but making sense of it is quite another.
But the promise of real-time data collection and analysis is compelling to both municipalities and companies, and it’s setting the foundation for a burgeoning market. In fact, the installed base of the Internet of Things is expected to reach 212 billion devices globally by the end of 2020, according to technology analyst firm IDC. Global revenues are expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 7.9 percent over the next six years to $8.9 trillion. As the IoT continues to grow in breadth and application, engineers will be left behind if they neglect to stay in front of this ever-changing network technology.