Ever Heard The One About the Talking Lamppost?
David Upton looks at how the internet of things has, and might develop in the future. By reviewing a Project run in Bristol in 2013 he explains what the future functions and benefits of IoT may be
Did you know that lampposts and post boxes can talk? At least, the ones in Bristol do. Enabling everyday objects to have conversations with people was the inspiration behind a unique project that ran in Bristol in 2013 to illustrate the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’, or IoT.
Although thousands of people took part, having a chat with a lamppost isn’t exactly everyone’s idea of worthwhile conversation and you cannot help wondering what the point is. But if the lamppost was fitted with a device to help keep the local council better informed about a fly-tipping problem, that might be worth hearing about. And that’s where the Internet of Things comes into its own, by using smart devices to capture and share data to enable greater visibility and understanding of what is occurring all around us.
Cloud technology is making IoT a reality
Forrester Research ran a study into perceptions of IoT, which revealed that over 50% of senior business executives were planning to implement an IoT solution in 2014. Thanks to the proliferation of cloud technology, this level of interconnectivity can be provided relatively inexpensively, and it means that external stakeholders become able to communicate effectively with each other, based on alerts and signals given off by intelligent connected devices.
It sounds very complex, and IoT tends to be associated with consumer devices – intelligent fridges that can trigger an order for replacement food online when supplies drop below a minimal level, or security systems that are triggered after a car leaves an electronic gateway. However, within a business context the concept is actually already well established as M2M or ‘machine to machine communications’, an idea that has been lurking around since the 1990s and in widespread use. It is especially relevant for supply chain activities, for example, active RFID tags that record when a medical consignment is transported at sub optimal temperatures, is a good example of how IoT is being applied today.
Massive untapped value from knowledge within devices
That’s just one example. According to Cisco, 99.4% of physical objects in the world are still unconnected and this represents a massive business opportunity. They believe that the knowledge created by connecting objects and allowing them to communicate with each other could generate ‘value’ in the region of £10 trillion (from higher revenues and lower costs) over the next decade. And around a third of this activity is expected within the supply chain, where visibility, tracking and data capture are essential to operational effectiveness.
Immediately this sparks significant considerations for the logistics and transportation industries. At the moment, the courier industry tends to do this manually, using barcodes scanned to track the whereabouts of parcels and consignments. This approach requires a high level of manual intervention and is prone to errors. What scope does the IoT offer for courier companies and logistics providers to improve visibility and customer satisfaction levels?
Huge scope to improve service and cut costs
There is an almost endless array of opportunities for IoT to be used by courier companies and logistics providers to improve visibility, customer satisfaction levels and cut costs. Below are just a few examples of applications to consider:
Monitoring driving patterns using inbuilt computers in courier vans. If this identifies a large amount of time spent waiting in congested areas, or to make a filtered turn, routes could be planned to avoid these delays.
Sensors added to vehicles to monitor transportation conditions of fresh produce consignments. If the temperature at any time rises beyond a set tolerance level, the retailer could be sent an advance notification to ensure the goods are sold off quickly to prevent stocks from being reduced in the store. This application would be equally useful for medical couriers to ensure consignments are transported at the right temperatures.
There are many other interesting applications to consider for transport and logistics. What about vending machines that send signals to the distribution centre when stocks are running low? Or vehicles that remind the fleet manager when maintenance checks are due? This idea could be further extended to automatically book service visits with engineering teams, trigger a request to stores for spare parts and book the vehicle out for commission for maintenance on the day of the service.
IoT will improve the ‘doorstep experience’ for retailers
For logistics providers and couriers working with retailers, here are two more IoT application ideas to maximise the ‘doorstep experience’ for customers.
For couriers shipping e-commerce orders, a sensor could be inserted into a box containing fragile goods during shipment and would automatically alert the sender and recipient if the box had been dropped in transit. For the customer, they have the opportunity to reject the item immediately rather than risk having to organise a later collection and for the retailer, they can offer a better service to customers, by being able to proactively manage expectations of damaged goods arriving and organise a swift replacement.
Again, helping to improve service levels, a tracker fitted to every vehicle could help customers waiting for e-commerce deliveries to identify exactly where on the delivery route their parcel is and therefore get an accurate ‘ETA’. This would be a significant improvement to the current level of information available to consumers, who can simply go to a retailer’s online portal and be aware their goods are ‘being shipped’.
To make these ideas a reality, companies need three main capabilities. 1) Connectivity – to allow the devices to communicate with each other, 2) Remote device management – for initial deployment plus ongoing performance monitoring and maintenance and 3) Standardised web APIs – to provide a means for data captured to be interpreted by different applications. In the majority of cases, IoT applications will be delivered over the web, as a cloud based solution. This automatically takes care of connectivity and management issues, since any number or combination of devices can quickly be set up and managed remotely.
Over the coming year we’ll be working closely with customers to identify how they can bringing together existing tracking methods, using RFID, barcodes and GPS, with other devices to provide hybrid, IoT solutions and benefit from continuous visibility and monitoring capability.
Suddenly that talking lamppost doesn’t seem so farfetched after all.