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The hidden challenge in Internet of Things

The Internet of Things stands as one of the largest economic opportunities in the world. And, while a lot of the public focus so far has revolved around consumer devices, some of the biggest breakthroughs are taking place behind the scenes in factories, farms and industrial sites to optimise production or increase energy efficiency.

By: | Published: February 11, 2016 12:04 AM

The Internet of Things stands as one of the largest economic opportunities in the world. And, while a lot of the public focus so far has revolved around consumer devices, some of the biggest breakthroughs are taking place behind the scenes in factories, farms and industrial sites to optimise production or increase energy efficiency.

Almost any way you look at it, the opportunities are massive. Worldwide, industrial customers purchase, but lose, enough electricity every year to power the US for five years. Not all of that energy can be recovered, but it gives you a sense of the scale of what can be achieved. A critical raw material—data—also already exists. McKinsey & Co estimates that less than 1% of the data from the approximately 30,000 sensors on an offshore oil rig gets exploited for decision making.

The opportunity, however, is also incredibly challenging and involves applications and a customer mindset that are far, far different than what some tech companies might be used to. The good news is that industrial IoT isn’t about producing simple gadgets. These will be sophisticated, elegant systems. The bad news is that meeting the performance specifications will be a mammoth task.

For instance to help the agriculture sector in India, ISRO has recently developed an app to assess crop damage. The pilot programme ‘Kisan’ uses a satellite and drone-based imaging and other geospatial technology to get timely and accurate data on crop yields. An Android based app was also launched to help assess crop damage from hailstorms.

Industrial systems are built to manage problems and processes—drilling undersea wells, controlling large-scale chemical reactors or optimising locomotive engines—in real time. There is little, if any, room for error. Hindustan Petroleum uses IoT to automate many of its processes and create real-time insights into the business. Through the use of sensors, the company is able to record real time information like temperature, pressure, GPS coordinated and other physical attributes.

Move fast and break things isn’t a philosophy to live by for industrial customers. It’s their biggest fear.

Product lifetimes are also incredibly long. In the US, the average age of large power transformers is over 40 years. The average age of a data centre server is three years. It’s no coincidence that many companies that specialise in operational technology can trace their lineage to the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Traditional tech companies moving into industrial IoT will have to harden their technologies to operate within extremes of temperature, moisture, vibration and pressure. Redundant connectivity, storage capacity and/or processing power will be the norm. One of the largest two wheeler companies in India is using IoT to improve its visibility on its fleet of vehicles. The fleet of vehicles being distributed was made GPS enabled. This helped them keep a track of the vehicles, and it also facilitated them to provide real time information to their dealers and sales teams.

IoT is also being implemented in the healthcare sector in India. Apollo Hospitals are using IoT to monitor blood sugar levels which can then recorded in personal health files. One of the early markets where you will see rapid changes is security and monitoring systems. A number of airports and large municipalities want to be able to analyse video streams from cameras in real-time to improve safety or get better visibility into core operations. A single high-resolution video camera can generate hundreds of megabytes per minute and a large industrial site can have hundreds of them.

Do you create a hardened, high-speed network where cameras deliver massive HD streams to central servers for facial recognition or do you beef up the technology inside individual cameras for local matching? Or do you create a hybrid architecture where an intelligent camera scans for approximate matches and data center servers try to pinpoint exact matches? These are some of the questions currently being tackled in labs and board rooms.

That said, this will be a two-way street and industrial customers will likely start to update products more rapidly, taking greater advantage of new algorithms or the magic of Moore’s Law faster. Inserting 5 GB in a fan pump or variable speed motor today might seem ludicrous. Five years from now, it will seem ludicrous not to have it.

Security is also another area where IoT can help immensely with monitoring. A set of strategically placed cameras connected to the Internet can provide a live feed of activities in and around a home on the owner’s device.

The factory of the future is coming. The gains are just too big to ignore. But it’s going to take a meeting of the minds to get there.

The writer is VP & GM, Mobile & Tablet, SanDisk

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