Internet Of Things: What's Holding Us Back

The likes of Union Pacific, GE Power & Water, and ConocoPhillips are turning IoT hype into reality, but they want to do more. Here's what's still getting in the way.

needed to make such connections easier. Soley describes how hospitals use sensors clipped to a patient's finger to gauge oxygen levels, but those sensors generate false alarms.

Hospitals also use respiratory sensors that tell if the patient's chest is going up and down. The two measure the same "system" for a person -- taking in oxygen -- but are rarely integrated because there is no data standard or platform for doing so. "This literally kills people," Soley says. "... It's a lack of Internet thinking in industrial systems."

Companies spend 90% of their IoT budgets on those kinds of integrations, leaving insufficient money to drive the operational changes that actually produce the returns, says Ton Steenman, Intel's IoT business leader. "It should be 10% of your money on stitching things together," he says.

More sensor innovation needed.
A typical IoT scenario starts with some kind of sensor collecting data on a device. Look for a wave of innovation and experimentation ahead in what those sensors measure, look like, and cost.

That innovation has begun. In the medical field, a new generation of wearable monitoring technology lets hospital personnel track patients' health after they're discharged in order to avoid readmissions (and associated financial penalties from the health insurers). Auto insurance companies such as Progressive and Allstate offer customers networked devices that analyze and report on their driving habits with the promise of cutting their rates if the results are positive.

Apple last fall rolled out iBeacon, a device that uses low-level Bluetooth frequency to let businesses engage with consumers' iPhones over short distances. For example, a retailer could offer a product coupon when a person puts a phone near a designated iBeacon sensor. "It allows brands to compete for shoppers in the store," says Erik McMillan, CEO of Shelfbucks, a startup that's marketing an iBeacon management platform. Shelfbucks offers a similar platform for near-field communication, but McMillan predicts that retailers will prefer iBeacon's superior reliability. "NFC is such a finicky technology," says McMillan, citing problems with metal interference and with having to put the phone a precise distance from the reader. "Within two years, NFC will disappear," he says.

Not only is Union Pacific experimenting with accelerometers on trains that feel for bumps, it's also running cameras over tracks (at lower speeds than a freight train, for now) and using algorithms to analyze the captured images for cracks and other flaws in railroad ties. The image analysis is catching more than 90% of what human inspectors would, CIO Tennison says. UP is also testing video analysis at higher speeds, via cameras posted along tracks or in railyards, whose footage exposes problems, such as a bent ladder, on trains as they roll by their regular routes.

GE's Ruh calls video "the most underutilized sensor in industrial markets, one of three game-changing classes of sensors we're going to see." Combining video with autonomous drones opens up even more possibilities for industrial monitoring in remote and hazardous areas.

The second big area for innovation: more-refined and more-affordable environmental sensors for measuring the things companies already measure, such as vibration, temperature, and pressure, Ruh says.

The third area of innovation Ruh identifies is the "software-defined sensor," a combination of multiple sensors plus computing power that sits out on a network and "calculates rather than measures."

Companies must start thinking about what and how many sensors they'll need to add to their products to satisfy customer needs. Ruh notes that today's airline jet engines have a "double-digit" number of sensors, more than twice the previous generation, and that the next generation will have a triple-digit number. But it's not just high-tech products that will need sensors. Tennison is talking with makers of composite-material railroad ties about whether it makes sense to embed a sensor that can tell a reader on a passing train when a tie has deteriorated.

Status quo security doesn't cut it.
The IT industry has almost two decades of experience securing datacenters and devices against Internet threats. But that experience could prove a liability if IT professionals don't recognize the differences in the IoT world of operational technology (OT).

"The biggest fallacy is that traditional IT security solves operational technology problems," says Ruh. For example, compared with securing a datacenter, there's much more of a physical dimension to machine-to-machine security -- frequent hands-on maintenance and repair. Taking a turbine down for a security reboot is a huge problem. "What we're finding is that the IT world still doesn't get it," Ruh says. "... When I look at the future of security, it's going to have to be a foundationally different world in OT security than IT security."

For example, Ruh envisions a power plant turbine having cameras and sensors that watch and understand who a person is and what he's doing. Is it a known engineer doing something within his responsibility? Is someone doing something that will cause a failure, due to malice or mistake? Machines need to have smarter tools to question a person making changes or send alerts about changes -- essentially, to protect themselves, Ruh says.

Segregating networks is another security best practice, building on the auto manufacturing approach, Fowler says. In a car, the network for antilock braking systems is entirely separate from the network for entertainment systems. Diagnostic and monitoring networks are separate from operational ones where possible.

Fowler notes that 30-year-old machine-controller systems weren't written with Internet connectivity in mind. A lot of GE's controller-related R&D is focused on how to rebuild controllers so they can do things like machine-to-machine authentication and certificate-based security.

Likewise, the Internet will need new standards for machine-to-machine communication. "We're bending the Internet to lots of uses that it wasn't designed to do," says Soley, of the Industrial Internet Consortium.

Building Blocks

The Industrial Internet Consortium has working groups working on three main deliverables:

  • Use cases: IIC's "blue-sky applications" of the industrial Internet to look at the technology gaps and architectural requirements
  • Framework for reference architectures: Emphasis on open architectures, lightweight, easy to use, building on prior work
  • Glossary of terms: CTO Stephen Mellor says this should help people avoid having to say, "When I say industrial Internet, I mean ..."


Cost savings today, revenue tomorrow.
Consumer-facing IoT projects are advancing in fits and starts. Google's $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest, a maker of Internet-connected thermostats and smoke detectors, provides one giant proof point of the commercial interest, but there are few other "wow" examples. We've seen a flurry of new Internet-connected wearable devices, but one notable setback is the FuelBand fitness tracking device, which Nike said last month it would stop developing, though it will continue developing fitness tracking software. On the flip side, Facebook just acquired Moves, an app that does fitness tracking via a smartphone.

The clearest IoT successes today are from industrial projects that save companies money, rather than from projects that drive new revenue. Intel's Steenman sees the most interest in areas such as smarter manufacturing and buildings, monitoring and optimization of power and water supplies, and city government uses such as managing and rerouting vehicle traffic.

But even with these industrial projects, companies shouldn't underestimate the cultural change they need to manage as machines start telling veteran machine operators, train drivers, nurses, and mechanics what's wrong, and what they should do, in their environment.

Download the May 5, 2014, issue of InformationWeek.

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