Smart Home Automation – What Internet of Things means!
One of the things that makes people smart, smarter than all the other creatures who creep, flap, hoof and slither round the planet is our ability to communicate with one another. We can talk to other people, listen to them and collaborate to achieve very complicated goals, from finding cures for cancer to putting astronauts on the Moon. Even before the invention of the Internet, people were intricately networked, right round the world; famously, according to sociological theory, there are only six degrees of separation (six links) necessary to connect any one person on the planet with any other.
Now what if gadgets and machines could talk to each other the same way? What if an accelerometer embedded in a cardigan could automatically detect when an old person fell down the stairs and telephone an ambulance? What if all the homes had smart power meters that could signal energy consumption to utility companies in real-time? Suppose car engines could monitor their own mechanical efficiency, and if it fell below a certain level, dial into a garage computer and be remotely tweaked back to some optimum level, all without leaving our garages? What if highway control systems could measure and monitor cars streaming down different routes at different times of day and automatically re-routed traffic around jams? These things might sound fanciful, but they’d all become possible if the machines in our homes, offices and transportation systems could communicate with one another automatically if, in other words, there were a giant network of machines and this is the concept known as Internet of Things.
What is the Internet of Things?
People have been getting excited about this idea since it was originally suggested in 1999 by technology entrepreneur Kevin Ashton, then working in brand marketing at Proctor & Gamble. He’d been researching electronic sensors and RFID tags (wireless printed circuits that allow objects to identify themselves automatically to computer systems. They’re used in library self-checkouts and many apartment or office access scenarios) and in a moment of insight, wondered what would happen if all kinds of everyday objects and machines could communicate through a standard computer network. Ashton realised his Internet of Things was a yellow-brick road to better efficiency and less waste for all kinds of businesses.
In popular news articles, the Internet of Things is often explained by introducing a well-known but frivolous and now rather hackneyed example. Suppose your refrigerator could use RFID tags to detect what products it contained and how old they were. If it were linked to the Internet, it could automatically reorder new supplies whenever it needed to. It sounds harmless enough, but the infamous Internet fridge has actually become something of a distraction from much more valuable applications: most of us are capable of keeping tabs on our sour milk and mouldy cheese, the argument goes, so what possible use could there be for the Internet of Things? But suppose similar technology were being used to monitor elderly or disabled people so they could continue to live safely, with independence and dignity, in their own homes? It’s easy to build a home that uses motion sensors to monitor when someone is regularly walking around (intruder alarms have been using this technology for years) and not much harder to monitor that data remotely. That’s a much more persuasive example of how the Internet of Things could prove really helpful to a society with a rapidly ageing population.
Although people sometimes talk about the Internet of Things as though it’s merely an extension of smart home technology, it’s actually a much bigger and more general idea. Imagine our system for monitoring the elderly transplanted to a hospital and scaled up into a kind of e-care, in which non-critical patients are routinely monitored not by nurse’s observations but by remotely gathered electronic sensors, communicating their measurements over a network or, to take another example, what about automatically monitoring your home while you’re on holiday using sensors and webcams? If it works in a house, it works anywhere for checking and automatically restocking shelves in a supermarket, for remotely monitoring the crumbling concrete on a highway bridge or in a hundred other places.
How Internet of Things works?
Five basic things are needed to make the Internet of Things work.
1. The Thing
First, there’s the “thing” itself, which could be anything from a person or animal to a robot or computer, champions of the technology have even speculated that one day the Internet of Things could extend to things as small as bits of dust. Generally speaking, the “thing” is something we want to track, measure, or monitor. It could be your own body, a pet, an elderly relative, a home, an office block, or pretty much anything else you can imagine.
2. The Identifier
If we want to be able to connect things, monitor them, or measure them, we need to be able to identify them and tell them apart. It’s easy enough with people we all have names, faces and other unique identifiers. It’s also relatively easy with products we buy from stores. Since the 1970s, most of them carried have unique numbers called Universal Product Codes (UPC), printed on their packs using black-and-white zebra patterns barcodes, in other words. The trouble with barcodes is that someone has to scan them and they can “store” only a very small amount of information (just a few digits). A better technology, RFID, allows objects to identify themselves to a network automatically using radio waves, with little or no human intervention. It can also transmit much more information.
3. The Sensors
If an object simply identifies itself to a network, that doesn’t necessarily tell us very much, other than where it is at a certain time. If the object has built-in sensors, we can collect much more useful information. So automatic sensors that can routinely transmit automatic measurements are another key part of the Internet of Things. Any type of sensor could be wired up this way, from electronic thermometers and strain gauges to reed switches.
4. The Network
It makes sense for things to exist and communicate on a network the same way that computers exist and talk to one another over the Internet using a standard agreed communication method called the Internet Protocol (IP). IP is based on the idea that everything has a unique address (an IP address) and exchanges data in little bits called packets. If things communicate using IP, or use something like WiFi to talk to an Internet-connected router, it opens up the possibility of controlling them from a Web browser anywhere in the world. That’s why we’re now seeing home security and monitoring systems that allow you to do things like turning your central heating on and off with smartphone apps.
5. The Data Analyser
Once we’re collecting masses of data, from hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of things, analysing it could find patterns that help us work, move, and live much more smartly at least in theory. Data mining the information we gather from people or car movements and optimising our transportation systems could help us reduce travel times or congestion, for example, with major benefits for people’s quality of life and the environment. Cloud computing systems (the idea of using powerful computer services supplied over the Internet) are likely to play a very big part in the Internet of Things, not least because the amount of data collected from so many things, so regularly, is likely to be enormous.
Who uses Internet of Things?
You don’t have to look too far to see the Internet of Things in action. Libraries were early adopters, embedding RFID chips in book covers so that people could borrow and return items themselves using self-checkout machines. That gave instant stock-control, better security, and in theory the possibility of freeing up librarians to spend more time helping people (in practice, many libraries simply have fewer staff now). Tracking your home-delivery purchases over the Internet is another very basic example, if every parcel is barcoded and scanned at every point of its journey from warehouse to customer, with the scanners all wired to a central database, it’s easy to work out where anything is at any time.
Much more interesting examples are also starting to emerge. Hive, a home-heating system, uses a wireless thermostat that communicates with your home Internet router making it possible to adjust your heating or hot water using a smartphone app or web browser, the Nest Learning Thermostat, a rival home thermostat system, is more sophisticated but can be controlled by an app in a similar way. Securifi Almond, a home management and security system, goes even further, it connects a whole raft of sensors and alarms to a web interface so people can monitor and manage their homes when they’re at work or on vacation.
Even the infamous Internet fridge is starting to arrive albeit in rather slow motion. Between 2014 and 2019, Amazon tested a system called Dash, featuring a handheld scanner that you could swipe over products to reorder things when supplies got low. A related idea was to stick simple Internet-connected “Dash buttons” around your home that you could use to reorder things with a single click.
In one way or another, all the big digital technology companies are exploring variations on the Internet of Things. Apple has HomeKit (which turns iPods and iPhones into smart home controllers) and HealthKit (which lets you monitor your health and fitness and if you wish, share the data with your doctor or hospital through a smartphone app). Google has Home and Fit, which lets people monitor and analyse exercise data collected from wearable sensors and trackers developed by a whole collection of partner companies. Samsung, leading maker of both smartphones and home appliances, sees a great opportunity in linking the two in a system called the SmartThings Hub. Microsoft is also believed to be working on smart home systems linked to its Kinect motion tracker and Xbox gaming system and Amazon has Alexa.
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