The concept of connectivity that is at the heart of the Internet of Things (IoT) is not new. The X10 communications protocol, which enabled wireless control of in-home devices, made its debut in the 1970s. We are also long accustomed to automatic garage door and car door openers and—more recently—smartphone applications that allow us to remotely manage the electronic devices in our homes.
What is different today is that advances in technology are moving us ever closer to realizing the full potential of the IoT to help manage our lives and enterprises. These innovations are enabling low power, smart sensors that can observe, learn and make decisions to create better, more efficient environments. Another new development is that we understand that consumers want more than just a collection of connected devices. They want to experience the benefits of the IoT as a service and without the challenge of having to research, locate, purchase, install and maintain a sensor network themselves.
To delve into the future of the IoT as a service, let’s first look at the foundational technologies that support IoT content and how they are evolving to create smarter, more fully connected environments. The IoT requires connectivity at several levels: wide area networks (outdoor), local area networks (indoor) and personal area networks (wearable and mobile). The technologies that are enabling this today include LTE, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
LTE for Outdoor Wide Area Networks — LTE is the modern high speed wireless communications standard for mobile phones and data terminals that supports 4G services. The technology is easily deployed and optimizes network connectivity by using separate radio links for the device-to-tower uplink and tower-to-device downlink. LTE is important because it enables more efficient use of the ever-limited spectrum available to connect low power IoT devices with back-end systems.
Wi-Fi for Indoor Local Area Networks — Wi-Fi, the 802.11x IEEE standard, is most commonly used for wireless networks in the home and within businesses or organizations. Its ability to transmit data at very high rates also drains the battery and reduces operating time, which results in users having to charge their devices frequently. (Hence, the rise of technologies such as Bluetooth and ZigBee® that support small, low power IoT devices, where batteries can last for years.)
Bluetooth for Mobile or Wearable Personal Area Networks — Bluetooth is a low power, short‐range communications technology primarily designed for point‐to‐point communications between wireless devices. While it has been used most often for applications in keyboards, mice, smartphones and headsets, Bluetooth is becoming more network capable, in the form of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which supports lower power consumption and can directly access the internet.
At the heart of the IoT’s future are small, “smart,” lower power sensors and devices. Foundational connectivity technology is evolving to address the networking requirements for low power, just as chip technology is advancing to support multiple communications protocols within the same device. These newer options include:
Long Term Evolution for Machines (LTE-M) — LTE category M1 (LTE-M) is a low power version of LTE that enables IoT devices to connect to a 4G network directly. It supports significantly extended battery life—longer than 10 years—through a power savings mode where devices awaken only to transmit or receive data. LTE-M eliminates the need for full-featured LTE devices while still providing cellular-quality coverage.
ZigBee® — This low cost, low power, wireless, mesh network protocol is based on the IEEE 802.15.4 standard and is the most common protocol in the low power networking market, with a large installed base in both industrial environments and home devices. ZigBee 3.0 is the foundation for the IoT and “smart home” solutions, with redundant, low cost, ultra‐low power devices and nodes. It is already anchored in the consumer electronics world with ZigBee RF4CE and ZigBee Green Power features. ZigBee Green Power minimizes power demand with self‐powered energy harvesting. ZigBee RF4CE defines a low power, low latency, RF remote control network for two-way, device‐to‐device control applications that do not require a full‐featured wireless mesh network.
Thread — A ZigBee 3.0 challenger, Thread entered the market as both a mesh networking protocol and working group founded by Google subsidiary Nest.
BLE — BLE devices consume significantly less power than traditional Bluetooth devices and can access the Internet directly through IPv6 over low power wireless personal area networks (6LoWPAN) connectivity. These features make it well suited for IoT devices that operate on small batteries or for energy-harvesting devices.
THE MOVE TO SMART DEVICES
In addition to competing standards at the communications layer, there is industry competition at the application layer (see Figure 1). Both pose significant challenges for anyone who is developing, selling or purchasing products for the home. Consumers who wish to have a smart home are faced with having to decide between Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee and other technologies. Companies that develop and market components for the home risk millions of dollars in development and customer support costs if they make the wrong choice.
Many IoT device discussions use the terms “smart” and “connected” interchangeably. Many devices called “smart” today are only slightly more capable than those launched decades ago. They are mostly stand-alone units that require human action to be turned on and off. For example, while a home security sensor may be “connected” and detects that no one is in the home, it does not interact with the lighting sensor to turn off the lights or with the heating system to turn down the thermostat.
A smart device and application can analyze incoming data and make a decision to control or activate a device without human intervention. In the case of the smart home environment, a network of devices can sense who is in the home, where they are in the home and learn what “normal” activity is at a particular day and time. Using this intelligence about the residents, the network makes decisions about whether to lock doors and windows; turn on or off the heater, air conditioner, lights or entertainment system; or activate the security system. To be considered “smart,” a device must have three capabilities:
- Connect to and exchange data with other smart or connected devices in the home
- Recognize what goes on in the home and learn what is normal, beyond being programmed for a certain function at a certain time
- Use a single integrated application on a smart phone or other web-connected device to manage all the functions.
THE SMART HOME AS A SERVICE
While the IoT ultimately will affect every aspect of how our world operates, the home environment provides an excellent example of what is emerging as the future of the IoT as a service. Consumers are making it clear that they want more than a collection of sensors in their homes. They are not really seeking to own smart technology, rather they are looking for smart services and the ability of those services to help manage their lives.
The Smart Home as a Service (SHaaS) is the next phase of the home IoT evolution. SHaaS is a collection of services where devices, sensors and applications work together without human interaction. This network makes intelligent decisions that render homes more comfortable, safe and energy efficient. SHaaS solutions can reduce the number of sensors required in the home, and a single sensor can be used for a variety of applications. For example, a motion sensor can be used for the security system, light control, managing the temperature and controlling entertainment and senior lifestyle systems. There are four components of a SHaaS:
- A network of sensors in the home provides a general indication of when and where movement occurs, the environmental conditions and whether the home is secure or there are issues, such as a leak
- The information derived from these sensors is wirelessly collected by a local hub (e.g., gateway or set-top box) and securely transmitted to an intelligent cloud service that collects and analyzes the data and sends alerts to family members when it detects changes
- A central management app enables the consumer to manage the network using a single user interface on a smartphone or any web-connected device
- The service provider is easily able to handle customer support, billing, subscriber management, software and service upgrades and changes.
A SHaaS eliminates the need for the consumer to be technology-savvy. Rather than having to research, select and purchase equipment and try to guess which wireless technology standard to use, the consumer simply relies on the providers of the services they already use, such as internet access, security and entertainment. Their routers, modems and set-top boxes are already in the home, and customers are accustomed to paying a monthly bill for these services. Consumers can select the services they want and control them through a single smartphone app.
Retail organizations that provide some home services, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Costco and others, could easily enter this market. Large security firms and integrators could market an entire suite of services as a unified package.
Applications and Benefits
The benefits of the SHaaS are limited only by the imagination. Here are a few examples:
Comfort, Cost Savings and Sustainability — If a family were watching a movie on a cold winter night, a smart home system would turn off the lights and turn down the heat in the empty parts of the home. Power-consuming devices that are on but not in use would also be turned off. The system would lower the temperature for sleeping during the night and begin to raise it again before the family awakens and begins the day. If the home network recognizes that the family is away on vacation, it would disconnect devices that consume standby power.
Connecting the water heater to a smart sensor would allow leaks to be detected early. The smart sensor would alert the homeowner and also control the power and water systems connected to it. With smart sensors, homeowners can remotely run their dishwashers and appliances. Problems would automatically be detected and relayed to a repair service. Home energy use and repair costs would be reduced and natural resources conserved. Insurance companies already are noting smart home applications that provide early warning of water leaks, heating system defects and fire, which can reduce repair, renovation and replacement costs.
Senior Lifestyle — Many of us are living longer and want to remain independent. The SHaaS for seniors can help keep us safe and comfortable in our own homes without feeling that we are being watched by cameras. To do so, a limited number of small, battery-powered sensors for motion detection and door opening and closing, strategically placed throughout the residence, would “observe” activities and collect data. When something out of the ordinary occurs, the system would automatically notify family members, a friend or emergency personnel.
Fitness and Healthcare — Wearable lifestyle and fitness technology would integrate many more data points, including from sensors in the home, and help ensure proper nutrition and rest based on our health goals and medical histories.
The IoT is destined to have a profound impact, well beyond the home environment. It will transform virtually all industries, from hospitality and retail to automotive, agriculture and healthcare, altering the way that municipalities and public services operate. For example, smart cities of the future will likely leverage the IoT for city lighting management, traffic flow monitoring and control, emergency services deployment and natural resource management.
In manufacturing, the increasing complexity of just-in-time supply chain processes will benefit from IoT applications that enable more precise forecasting, inventory tracking and delivery of needed parts, as well as better collaboration between suppliers and customers. Biosensors in the healthcare environment will speed testing and accurate diagnosis of a wide variety of conditions. They will also monitor the ecosystems related to wellness, such as water quality, drug and food safety.
IT’S ALL ABOUT SERVICES
While advancing technology is essential to the future of the IoT, the goal of a more connected world is really about services. These services will enable informed decisions faster than ever, allowing us to better manage our lives as individuals and families and operate more efficiently as organizations.
A unified, smart IoT network, such as a SHaaS, delivers the benefits of connectivity, without the need for users to be technical experts. Device and system technologists can help realize the full potential of the IoT as a service by working together to develop the hardware, software and web intelligence that will make this possible.
Cees Links is general manager of the wireless connectivity business at Qorvo. He was the founder and CEO of GreenPeak Technologies, acquired by Qorvo in April 2016. Links pioneered the development of the first wireless LANs and has been recognized as a Wi-Fi pioneer with the Golden Mousetrap Lifetime Achievement award. He was instrumental in establishing the IEEE 802.15 standardization committee, the basis for ZigBee® sense and control networking.