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7/18/2013
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The Internet Of Things Gold Rush

Ready or not, items from pills to power plants are poised to generate billions of data points. Here's how to stake your claim.

IBM's Counterfeit Drug Battle

For some time, IBM has worked on keeping counterfeit medications from sneaking into the supply chain. Its goal is to ID drugs right down to the individual pill using a variation of the microchip IDs that have been around for a while (you can get one inserted into your pet for about $10). The plan is to bring that cost down 100-fold, so that individual pills or single-use injection vials could be tagged for about 10 cents. Drugmakers simply drop a chip about the size of a grain of sand and coated with a nonreactive substance into the vial or into the pill as it's being pressed. The objective is to go from a rate of about 10% fakes today to far less than 1% in the future. Bad batches can also be identified and removed from the system easily.

Logistics and transportation are obvious places where Internet-connected sensors can help. If UPS can accurately predict an imminent truck breakdown, other trucks can be assigned to meet the vehicle with the problem and avoid missing a delivery guarantee. Route optimization can also be improved. UPS famously instituted a no-left-turn policy for its vehicles to speed up deliveries and save fuel. With sufficient real-time traffic information, companies can make route planning even more efficient, and that's just the beginning of what the IoT can do. Chips can limit the top speeds of service vehicles, for example, and report deviations from routes.

Then there's the promise of smart homes, factories and offices, which through design, instrumentation and automation can substantially lower energy usage and costs. Still, while it may run just $30 to $50 to network-connect an outlet, motorizing and networking blinds and air ducts is much more expensive, often $200 to $500 a pop. It's not uncommon for that work to tack on $30,000 to $50,000 to the price of a typical house.

Clearly, many IoT technologies have a distinctly first-world bent. That's fine for now, but it's not likely that developed countries are where billions of new connected devices will come from, never mind trillions in savings. For that, we need universal connectedness and problem-solving on a global scale. Let's look at some of the factors holding us back.

Evolving The Internet

In almost all IoT applications, sensors on local networks report back to a single entity that then connects to the Web and delivers data upstream. In the home, for example, wireless standards such as Z-Wave exist for operation in the 900-MHz band with a range of about 100 feet and a maximum of 232 devices. These local islands will connect to the Web through a central controller. So while your refrigerator may know you're out of milk, chances are it'll be some other, smarter device that actually calls the grocer for a refill. Thus, the smart home won't cause as much of an explosion of devices on the Web as if each refrigerator, toaster, dryer and DVR were online.

The same is true for industrial applications, where it may not be every valve along a pipeline (or whatever application you can imagine) that's hitting the Web. Still, even at a 10-1 or 100-1 ratio, there will be a lot of new devices to contend with. Even the addition of a half billion or so home-based controllers could have significant impact as they interact with the power grid, surveillance and security firms, and other businesses. IP addressing will be an issue -- IPv6 finally has a killer application -- but the added traffic must also be managed.

Still, what's really going to be important are the security, privacy and process algorithms that will deal with data from potentially millions of sources, some of them reliable, some of them not.

iPv6 by the numbers

In terms of connecting humans to the IoT, consider the Nike FuelBand. The idea is that you wear the device and it tracks your activity throughout the day, to monitor your caloric output. Unfortunately, that's at least a little bit of hype -- version one is nothing more than a pedometer, a clock and a Bluetooth radio. But the technology will surely improve, and the device comes with some pretty slick software that lets you compete against yourself or others and post your fuel points burned to Facebook. Nike itself uses fuel points to reward its employees -- it might announce at 9 a.m. that the first to show up at reception with 3,000 fuel points wins a pair of Portland Trail Blazer tickets, for example. Apple's upcoming iWatch will likely have similar functionality.

Beyond commercial products, specialized wearable monitors will be a boon for medicine. They may be able to spot changing conditions in high-risk patients and predict critical events before they happen. Short-range communications such as Bluetooth will transmit data to a local device that can do some autonomous diagnosis and report back to a hospital via a cellular data connection. Could such a smart patch simply talk to your Android or iPhone, which could notify your doctor if it senses a problem? Sure. The FDA may have something to say about it, but the idea is the same.

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