Imagine the Internet of Things (IoT) as a central nervous system that collects streams of data from its sensory organs – which include ‘eyes’ (cameras), ‘ears’ (microphones) and ‘skin’ (temperature and pressure sensors), among others. This information is continuously transmitted to the ‘brain’ (software), where machine learning and artificial intelligence further reduce the need for human interaction. And just like our organic nervous system, the digital one is interconnected, flexible and constantly evolving.
‘The IoT represents all the connected devices, from smartphones to smart meters, that collect, transmit or share information via the internet,’ says Arthur Goldstuck, MD of tech market research firm World Wide Worx. ‘There are broader and more limited definitions, depending on how purist one wants to be.’ All definitions share one basic premise: the Internet of Things is not a product or a technology itself, but rather a capacity.
The sheer number of ‘things’ connected to the internet to ‘talk’ to other ‘things’ has grown explosively in recent years. The first such thing was a Coke vending machine at Carnegie Mellon University, modified to monitor and report on the temperature of its drinks and the state of its inventory.
That was in the early 1980s, but according to Cisco Systems, it took until roughly 2008 for the IoT to officially take off. The turning point occurred when internet-connected devices started outnumbering connected people.
At present, 127 new IoT devices connect to the internet every second, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. The number of unique IoT apps and services is also skyrocketing, with the International Data Corporation (IDC) expecting that we have already reached as many as 250 000 by this year. The IDC further predicts more than 80 billion IoT connected devices around the globe by 2025, generating a mind-boggling 180 zettabytes of data (1 ZB equals 1 billion terabytes.)
It’s all around us
Africa has embraced this trend. The IoT is all around us, even if most people aren’t aware of it. After all, it works its magic behind the scenes and isn’t a single entity. Far from being ‘yet another hyped-up technology’, the network of connected devices has already delivered on its promise, says Goldstuck, indicating that South Africa has only just seen the tip of what is possible with the ‘elusive’ and ‘vast’ IoT. ‘We see its primary benefit in vehicle tracking, which then has the knock-on and even broader benefit of feeding into mapping systems, thereby giving us live traffic mapping on our handsets,’ he says, and lists other examples, such as internet-connected TVs and security monitors, smart meters, weather sensors, as well as smart cities, buildings that adapt to our presence, and the first driverless vehicles.
‘The world is moving towards a place where everything that you and I need will be connected to the internet, with vastly improved efficiencies and benefits in our daily lives,’ says Tiaan Coetsee, co-founder of IoTdc, a local distributor of connected hardware and applications with the vision to make ‘dumb’ devices ‘smart’. The newly launched Pretoria firm sources fit-for-purpose IoT products for each client, helping them to streamline their system into one platform with a single window.
This interoperability will become paramount if we want to integrate the confusing number of IoT market players that are developing tech on different platforms and frameworks.
Making life easier
‘We’re currently working on an internet-connected “smart home” project’, says Coetsee. ‘You can activate the lights and air con with motion sensors, voice-activate your radio and TV and other home appliances from the comfort of your couch. Your fridge will tell you when you run low on certain items and automatically place a grocery order with a supermarket. Your geyser and water meter will measure consumption 24-7 and notify you in case of a leak.’
He adds, ‘The real power of IoT in the home lies in actively managing your electricity and water consumption from your mobile devices as well as making your life easier.’
One of the first smart-home applications was security, with alarm systems, visual monitoring and panic buttons. It used to require a significant upfront investment to buy the hardware (security cameras, monitors, controller) and have them professionally installed. Nowadays, you can easily do it yourself, says Coetsee. ‘You simply walk into a store, buy a retrofitable camera, put it on your garage or in your garden, connect it to your WiFi, and monitor it from a cellphone app.
‘Smart tech is becoming more and more accessible to South Africans.’
The IoT has three key applications: location tracking, event monitoring and condition monitoring. This also has fantastic potential for the commercial and industrial markets across all sectors, from manufacturing and logistics, retail, healthcare, and agriculture, to mining and power generation. Take the embattled state-owned electricity company for example: By retrofitting geysers with sensors, Eskom would be able to remotely switch them off during peak periods. Further sensors on its power infrastructure could identify and report problems proactively, before they turn into major outages.
These automated actions would alleviate the pressure on the grid and possibly phase out load-shedding – a significant factor, because without electricity (and connectivity), the Internet of Things turns into the Internet of Nothing.
In urban areas, high-speed internet connections and network capacity are a challenge. Affordability is also an issue.
‘In Africa, we have needs that aren’t addressed by first-world solutions, because our problems are neither mainstream, nor are they profitable,’ says Phathizwe Malinga, MD of SqwidNet, whose low-cost, low-power IoT network covers 90% of South Africa. ‘It feels as if overseas IoT is about growth and being the next big thing, where, here, companies are actually using the technology to help them help their customers.’
The network allows companies to send small packets of data via millions of sensors and devices for analysis, immediate action, and record-keeping. Examples include automated water-meter reading in Cape Town, air-quality monitoring near Pretoria, and tamper-proof manhole covers in Joburg.
The scope for innovation is massive, as SqwidNet’s recent IoT university challenge indicated. The entries ranged from agricultural solutions for early pest detection to avoid crop losses, to generating electricity from plants by collecting electrons from roots. Malinga adds: ‘We also saw an IoT water-monitoring solution, early fire detection for rural communities, and a two-way learning solution using artificial intelligence.’
If these ideas succeed in drawing attention to the Internet of Things, more people may see the exciting connected ‘things’ all around them and their potential to make our lives better.