|Issue:||Europe II 2013|
|Topic:||The M2M potential|
|Author:||Kurt Groth Bager|
Kurt Groth Bager is Chief Executive Officer of Netop. Mr Bager has extensive experience in sales and marketing of IT solutions and many years of international leadership experience in several European countries.
Kurt Groth Bager is an Electronic Engineer; he also holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Management Studies, Management & Cooperation and Public Economics.
M2M growth has accelerated recently because of inexpensive electronics, the Internet, cloud-based connectivity, and cheap sophisticated devices that can collect data easily. This data – stored, analysed or forwarded as needed – is becoming a basic building block of Big Data. Among today’s major users are utility companies with smart meters for remote reading and control. M2M is increasingly used to monitor the elderly and bed-ridden. Smart cars are already available; Google is testing its driverless car on public roads.
Although the Terminator film franchise is far from the world of reality, it is an indication of one possible future and perhaps the ultimate M2M nightmare. Others obviously feel it is possible; Cambridge University has been commissioned to investigate the likelihood that machines could destroy the human race.
Machines that can communicate are far from new. M2M communication has long been a feature on factory production lines where simple networks of sensors and control modules have been in place since the early 20th Century. Not quite the world domination that Arnold Schwarzenegger acted out, but some significant industry analysts that in time machines of various sorts will outnumber just about everything.
The Internet of things
Since the creation of information technology, use of M2M communication has been growing. What has changed is the availability of inexpensive electronics, the use of Internet protocol, and connectivity in the form of cloud computing and modern ubiquitous networks. This perfect storm of technology has enabled sophisticated, but cheap, devices to collect data easily. This data can be stored, analysed or forwarded as needed. It is the start of the capture of base information that will form the building blocks of the currently fashionable Big Data, and has driven a huge step forward in M2M adoption.
There are already thousands of smart devices around the world, all with sensors, all connected and all sending information somewhere. If you haven’t heard it before, the term the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) will be soon become commonplace and the ‘things’ it describes are those very smart devices.
Opportunities and challenges
Although no one is really certain, if analysts’ predictions come true, the estimated five billion devices currently in operation could grow to more than 50 billion by 2020. The true numbers are affected by uncertainties in the definition of what an M2M device is, but whichever way you define it, it is going to be big.
However, while this growth will uncover numerous opportunities, it will also present some challenges. We need new legislation to address new issues particularly regarding privacy, legacy equipment and society in general. Security will also need to be improved, and as M2M communication becomes more pervasive, businesses and societies will become increasingly important to each other in order to provide information to users.
A growing number of governments have already initiated projects that utilise M2M, as they recognise the potential for economic and social development. Many will provide monitoring for public services such as weather monitoring or transport. There are also applications for health services – another area of great potential.
However, progress will inevitably create some legacy challenges including for the mobile carriers and their networks. Currently many applications of M2M use 3G mobile wireless networks. New technologies ones such as 4G replace these mature ones, but carriers will be unable to mothball the legacy network without causing major disruption.
The M2M conundrum – simple it is not
In an ideal world M2M technologies would cost little, run on free energy sources, work as well indoors as out, and allow instantaneous secure access to the Internet at high speed. This scenario is still some way off and, as with most advances, we will need to accept tradeoffs. Hard wiring helps with infrastructure, but with WiFi predicted to be a major conduit, obstacles such as wall thickness, buildings and trees will all be factors. Power will be another consideration. Low powered devices are good for batteries, but this also equates to lower range and throughput. WiFi has experienced some success, but for certain M2M uses it is generally deemed too power hungry.
Ease of rollout is also important. If users have to configure a device and the way it communicates it creates a hurdle to adoption. Ideally, simply plug in an M2M device and away you go.
One much mentioned way of overcoming some of these obstacles is by using indoor electrical wiring as infrastructure. Not only would this act as a pervasive ready-made network, but most of the devices you wish to control already use it for power. Almost every building has it, and with current technology electrical wiring can deliver up to 600 Mbits/s of bandwidth. It can also work well with existing standards such as Ethernet. Although its limitation is that signals cannot go past the electric meter – a limiting factor for wide area application.
In addition to internal electricity wiring, a variety of existing technologies have been tried and the Public Switched Telecommunication Network (PSTN) has been used to support older versions of M2M communication. Common M2M/PSTN applications include alarm systems and hole-in-the-wall payment systems. The advantages of PSTN are its ubiquity and ease-of-use. The drawbacks are it does not support high bandwidth applications and each connection needs to be set up.
Security is another area to address. Each connected device represents a security risk because of the additional ‘attack surfaces’ now available. Perimeter security will no longer serve, as the perimeter changes with each new device. Whereas, before, online attacks would be directed at a limited number of computer ports, in the near future there will be billions of devices each connected to each other as well as the corporate network. Each device can be hacked and be used as an entry point into the corporate network.
At present, mobile wireless technologies are the most successful communications technology in terms of ease-of-access. However this technology has coverage issues and it would be hard to overcome intermittent lack of service especially in critical applications such as health or safety systems. Standard SIM cards are also prone to theft; SIMs controlling traffic lights in South Africa were stolen and used in mobile phones. The thieves had unlimited free service for a while, but traffic was chaotic.
SomeM2M implementations in locations where land-based technologies are impossible use satellite communications. Typical uses include telemetry, logistics tracking and remote monitoring. However the need for line-of-sight, the high cost and low data transfer rate do not make this a first choice.
The utility sector has been quick to experiment with smart metering. Smart metering has many advantages. Meters can transmit real-time information directly to companies, eliminating the need for meter readers to travel to each property reduces costs. Smart meters also provide data for management statistics at the press of a button; the information collected can also be sent to the consumer to indicate consumption trends and, potentially, ways to reduce bills.
Entertainment, aided by the drive to create tomorrow’s smart home, is another sector taking advantage of M2M. Internet connected TVs can form a hub for smart home systems. Connectivity will extend to other areas of a house to control heating thermostats, driveway gates, burglar alarms and the kitchen. Smart refrigerators, which tell you when you are running out of provisions -,and order more, have been around for a number of years, but the infrastructure has not. With the infrastructure now coming together, smart home reality is now a huge step closer.
Additionally, many applications for eHealth should see early adoption in the home. With an ageing population alarm systems for the elderly will change from the reactive, panic button model, to a pro-active system that monitors vital signs and includes both voice and video options. Similar systems already exist in hospitals and will become more common.
Another area of focused development is the car. The world’s biggest chipmaker, Intel, has established a multi-million dollar fund dedicated to investing in firms developing connectivity for cars. Smart cars are already available with ‘thinking’ engines, location devices, automatic distance control, automatic parking and ‘stay in lane’ technologies. Google is taking the smart car concept one-step further by testing its driverless car on public roads in Nevada.
M2M is also helping with car insurance. Recently qualified drivers can obtain cheaper insurance quotes if they agree to have a black box monitoring device connected to their cars. These devices record driving patterns and help assess actual risk with an impact on premiums.
The potential for M2M is significant; an unimaginable number of M2M devices will soon be commissioned and deployed. The data collected will have significant and far-reaching socio-economic impacts and, for some applications, privacy will become a battlefield. Innovative, disruptive, business technologies will create new markets and new threats and opportunities. Consumers will see many tasks taken care of automatically and eventually taken for granted.
New security threats will arise and international security standards will be adopted. The European Commission is working on issues relating to security and privacy of the IoT (Internet of Things). The EC’s Engineering Task Force is working on a standard for secure communication between objects for the IoT. This is a crucial step towards a universally accepted security infrastructure for M2M communications.
Some they may feel this is the beginning of the dumbing-down of the human race, while to others it represents a great opportunity. We will soon see some significant technology advance, but whether machines will re-create the world of Schwarzenegger’s Terminator, only time will tell.