By Rob Whent
Last night, my lawn sprinklers didn’t come on. In fact, over the past 90 days, they didn’t come on 12 times. Rather than call a repair person to look at my system for defects, I thanked the app that connects my sprinklers to the internet and makes them “smart” enough to know if it’s raining out and to adjust the schedule accordingly. My smart sprinklers have saved me over 5,000 gallons of water and kept $60 in my pocket. The sprinkler controller I have cost me only $250 so it should pay for itself in one year.
This, my friends, is a great example of the “Internet of Things” or “IoT” as it’s referred to. It’s just the beginning of what some industry experts call “the fourth Industrial Revolution (after steam, electricity and wired computers).
We have the perfect storm of technology happening all around us. Smartphones are driving the consumer side of the equation – we have almost 3 times more computing power in our phones than a Cray Supercomputer did back in 1989. A Cray cost about $20 million dollars and was the size of a midsize car. On the corporate side, we have seen an explosion of complicated low cost sensors that are being put into all kinds of devices. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular data allow these devices to gather, store and analyze data and send it up to the cloud for further processing.
The research firm Gartner Inc. estimates that by the end of last year there were almost 4 billion connected devices out there—doorbells, fitness trackers, furnaces, door locks, pool pumps, heart monitors, wind turbines, even toys and ovens. By 2020, Gartner estimates there will be 25 billion of these smart devices, sending little bits of data to us, to the cloud and to each other. Cisco’s outgoing CEO, John Chambers, has said recently that there will be 50 billion devices online within five years, with a total market worth $19 trillion US. WOW!
The Internet of Things used to be referred to as the much less consumer-friendly “Machine to Machine”, indicating a direct communication between devices using any wired or wireless channels. M2M may bring up images of SkyNet from the Terminator movies, but it really is more accurate for what’s going on here. My sprinkler system, referred to earlier, is an example of a machine getting instructions from another machine (through the cloud) on what to do next without any human intervention. Self-driving cars are perhaps the best example of how we will all be affected by smart machines. General Motors recently announced that they will hire about 700 engineers in Oshawa to develop this technology. This is a testament to their commitment to this technology and to their confidence in Canada.
Experts agree that we are at the tip of an iceberg and predict that in four short years the explosion of IoT will be breathtaking. Companies will need to innovate more than they ever have before and connect their products and services to the cloud in order to compete. This will take a new way of thinking and offers unprecedented opportunities to everyone from start-ups to more well established firms. Canada is well positioned to take a leading role in this exciting tech revolution as our country has invested heavily over the past few years in supporting innovation through Universities, Colleges, incubators, accelerators and research and development initiatives.
Now that I am saving so much money saving water, I can save up for a self-driving lawn mower and take care of all my yardwork from the comfort of my couch while watching Terminator 3.
Rob Whent is an Industrial Technology Advisor with the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program, helping accelerate the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises by providing them with a comprehensive suite of innovation services and support. He can be reached by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Any views or opinions expressed are that of the author and do not represent those of NRC.