THESE days the acronym IoT (Internet of Things), coined in 1999, is often coming up in discussions and messages. When the internet connected people all over the world it changed our lives. Now that numerous devices are being connected to the internet, it will again turn our world upside down.
The IoT refers to the billions of physical devices, objects, and animals around the world with unique identifiers that are now connected to the internet, all collecting and sharing data. The term IoT includes an incredibly broad range of things such as internet-connected “smart” appliances like refrigerators and light bulbs; Alexa-style digital assistants; and internet-enabled sensors that are transforming factories, healthcare, transportation, distribution centres and farms.
Due to cheap computer chips and the ubiquity of wireless networks it is now possible to connect anything, from a small pill to a large aeroplane, to the IoT. Connecting these objects to the internet and adding sensors to them adds a level of digital intelligence to devices that otherwise would be dumb. The IoT is making the world around us smarter, more responsive, and is merging the digital and physical universes.
The IoT market is growing exponentially and is expected to become a multibillion-dollar industry in the years to come with only 1 percent of connectable devices connected currently. The digital transformation journey undertaken by many companies across industries will have a dramatic effect on the uptake of IoT over next few years.
The IoT initially focused on business and manufacturing, where its application is sometimes known as machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, but the emphasis is now on filling our homes and offices with smart devices. It is estimated that by 2025, 80 billion devices will be online worldwide, creating 180 zettabytes (180 trillion gigabytes) of data per day.
As mentioned, pretty much any physical object can be transformed into an IoT device if it can be connected to the internet to be controlled or to communicate information. So can domestic lights be switched on using a smartphone app, motion be detected by a sensor to switch a street light on, or temperature be controlled by a smart thermostat.
A popular application of IoT is in electricity meters. With the massive Eskom increases, electricity has become a key cost factor in all businesses and households. Since electricity management is critical for the minimisation of operational costs, IoT provides the possibility to monitor and manage the usage of electricity in near-real-time intervals. This allows businesses and private persons to manage any issues, breakages, and usage on an ongoing basis based on reliable data.
Retail fridge monitoring has in the last few years become an important application of the IoT. As explained by the chief executive Pieter Pienaar from Informed Decisions, this usually entails a multi-functional tool for monitoring and tracking fridge usage, security movement, health, and performance. Fridge monitoring typically includes:
Monitoring, which is often used by marketing, and provides the ability to monitor the fridges’ operational performance using sensors to monitor door contact (how often it is opened), temperature, and compressor runtime. This arrangement also provides fridge operating information, and gives health information to optimise preventative maintenance.
Active GPS-based tracking in near-real-time provides information about the positioning and security of the asset, and includes geo-fencing (the triggering of pre-programmed actions when the asset reaches a virtual boundary), abuse, placement within the store, theft, and loss.
In the agricultural industry, IoT is also gaining ground through precision farming. With IoT, analytics, and AI, farming can drive greater efficiencies and more accurate automation than ever, allowing for increased yield and a better-quality product.
By monitoring the entire farm – including pivot monitoring and control, dam levels, boreholes, soil, weather stations, gate control, chemicals used, and the crop itself – a farmer has a wealth of information to drive his yield while saving time and resources. Connected sensors, devices, equipment, implements, and many more, provide data such as pH levels, soil moisture, humidity, temperature, sunlight and total dissolved solids.
Farm to retail traceability, visibility and monitoring of supply chain environmental conditions provide better accountability and proof of condition for chain stores, restaurants and the hyper-connected consumer. All stakeholders will be able to see the sustainability of the product, environmental impact, production, date of picking, and which chemicals and additives were used.
Some larger objects are often filled with many smaller IoT components, such as a jet engine that contains thousands of sensors collecting and transmitting data to the pilot and manufacturer to make sure it is operating efficiently. At an even bigger scale, a smart city has numerous sensors to assist in understanding and controlling the environment.
IoT has been proved to be hugely beneficial by improving the quality of an organisation’s product or service; improving the customer data and service due to tracking of behaviours and purchases; improving the overall customer experience; reducing maintenance costs and improving decision-making.
However, South Africa’s IoT journey depends on the local situation and companies’ understanding of the benefits and return on investment of IoT; as well as the company’s strategy and budget. Although the IoT industry is still in its infancy, exponential growth is forecast for the next five years.
Professor Louis CH Fourie is an Extraordinary Professor at University of the Western Cape