15 February 2017

What is the Internet of Things?

In simple terms the Internet of Things (IoT) involves a whole world of connected gadgets and gizmos that interact with each other to monitor, report and switch things on and off with varying degrees of intelligence. The aim being to making our lives simpler, more efficient, nicer and just generally more Jetson.

The internet provides a communications channel for data - data that might be sent directly to us, to an application or service or another connected object. The 'things'? A myriad of sensors and devices, some on view and designed to be manipulated by users, others buried deep in the connected infrastructure, designed to collect or act on data. Those objects might be people, animals, appliances or building components.

The term Internet of Things was first coined by Kevin Ashton, co-founder of the Auto-ID Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Ashton was quick to recognise the benefits afforded by collecting and then acting on data. Writing in 1999 Ashton stated: "If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things - using data they gathered without any help from us - we would be able to track and count everything, and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling, and whether they were fresh or past their best".

The ubiquity of wireless networks, significant improvement in the embedded technologies to sense and communicate, and a surplus of IP addresses to make 'things' contactable online (thanks to the move towards IPv6), have all served to make Ashton's vision of the future a reality.

For a construction industry increasingly looking at efficiencies and whole-life value through added intelligence, it's not too hard to see the potential for IoT technologies. And that's why it's at the heart of the next phase in the digital construction revolution and the Digital Built Britain programme.

How important is data in a connected world?

In a technological world, data is plentiful and making use of that data, valuable. In a world that collects and is powered by data, we need to be able to accept, understand and interpret it to our own advantage. 

Imagine a world where machines, objects, materials and sensors of all kinds are capturing and reacting to data. Whether it's traffic lights adjusting patterns to data on traffic flow, houses firing up the heating when the temperature dips, heating systems that order their own replacement parts when existing ones fail. It's a world you're already living in.

As to what this means? We can no longer just think about individual buildings or assets. We must no longer be constrained by just thinking about design and construction. We must, instead, focus on the wider built environment and how we share and use information on just about everything. And it's the move to BIM that serves as the link to the data and plugs us into the digital world.

What applications are there for IoT technologies?

The idea of internet-connected devices isn't particularly new. Devices could be connected to the internet in the 80s. By 1990 John Romkey and Simon Hackett had come up with a way of connecting a toaster to the internet. Rising to a challenge set by Dan Lynch, President of the Interop Internet Networking Show, the duo had finally figured out how to satiate humankind's desire to toast bread from afar. All you needed was a remotely-located friend ready to load the bread into your toasting device of choice and a web connection. Such is progress that the duo managed to 'design out' the human needed to load the bread a year later by adding a robotic crane to the set up and by 2001 inventive students were etching weather forecasts onto browned bread.

Sadly internet-connected toasters haven't proved to be a killer application for the Internet of Things. And smart fridges have also left consumers cold.

LG's Smart Manager Fridge (which was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2012) hinted at the potential of connected technology to manage food inventory and add replacements to an online shopping account. For added japes the device could even suggest recipes based on available ingredients, set a timer, turn on your oven and instruct the chef through an interactive display screen.

Home heating and energy use are areas where Internet of Things technology has started to have more practical application and thus gained more traction. The ability to manually toggle your boiler on before you get home is undoubtedly handy, add in some smarts to turn things down if it turns out sunny or off when people leave the building and you start to see real practical benefits. The IoT should also mean that, for most, come the turn of the decade, the gas or electric meter reader should never need to call. All households will be offered a smart meter by 2020 which should ensure accurate billing and allow householders to keep a view of energy use in pounds and pence via a handy connected display.

See also: A warm reception for intelligent heating controls and The NBS guide to energy smart meters

Scale up the technology and you arrive at the somewhat nebulous concept of the 'smart home' - a collection of connected sensors and devices that drive a range of interactions. Want your lights to come on when your presence is detected? Your windows to close if rain is detected? Your smartphone to notify you when the mail arrives? With the right bit of kit connected to your router and a collection of smart devices, all this (and more) is possible. My review of Samsung's SmartThings system should provide some idea of the potential. In years to come we might expect to find smart lights, window closers and power sockets specified as standard.

Think bigger still and you arrive at the concept of the 'smart city' where smart bins let the council know they need emptying, where connected traffic signals work in tandem to optimise traffic flow. Manufacturing is already starting to reap the rewards as IoT helps organise tools, machines and people, and farmers keep track of crops and cattle, with the aim of boosting production and efficiency.

The Internet of Things involves a whole world of connected gadgets and gizmos that interact with each other to monitor, report and switch things on and off with varying degrees of intelligence. The aim being to making our lives simpler, more efficient, nicer and just generally more Jetson.

What are the opportunities afforded to construction by the Internet of Things?

The great number of components used in the construction and operation of buildings means that the potential for IoT application is very significant. With the right information, knowledge and skills you can deliver the kind of things that were traditionally seen as science fiction. That data we keep mentioning? Accessible, searchable, usable, meldable stuff. And it's the potential to aggregate and combine various sets of information that will see the most spectacular results. 

New technologies are speeding things up, improving data collation - laser scanning and point clouds bring new accuracy and efficiency. All these tools, all this data? Available to all. Expect challenger products and services that challenge and disrupt the status quo and SMEs to be able to compete and punch above their weight.

The impact of IoT technologies in other areas of our lives are also likely to impact on the kinds of buildings we design to meet society's needs. In a world where we all wear fitness wristbands or (shudder) implants there may well be less need for floorspace in hospitals to be devoted to diagnostics. And if we need fewer hospitals do we need more GP's surgeries or pharmacies or will we access more of these kinds of services online too?

The future sounds great - what's the catch?

Wherever there is data there are security concerns to be mitigated. Connected devices sharing and augmenting data in multiple places bring the potential to expose highly sensitive information should a hacker be sufficiently motivated to put in the time. In a world where everything is connected, what's to stop someone threatening to switch whole cities and infrastructure off unless their nefarious demands are met. While there's little incentive to hack systems in the home - yet - the hacking of baby monitors serves to illustrate some of the more sinister possibilities of our connected world.

Where does Digital Built Britain come in?

As we reported last year, the Digital Built Britain programme is the next stage in the construction industry's digital revolution. By using intelligent building information models, sensing technology and secure data and information infrastructure it is hoped to achieve whole-life costs and carbon emissions, while improving productivity and capacity.

With the idea of connected devices and smart cities at the heart of the initiative the next few years will see us start to develop the standards and protocols to fully realise the true potential of connected data and understand what that means for digital construction.