Hurdles to the Internet of Things prove more social than technical

MIT's IoTFest reveals the IoT poses as much challenge as it does promise.

Last Saturday’s IoT Festival at MIT became a meeting-ground for people connecting the physical world. Embedded systems developers, security experts, data scientists, and artists all joined in this event. Although it was called a festival, it had a typical conference format with speakers, slides, and question periods. Hallway discussions were intense.

However you define the Internet of Things (O’Reilly has its own take on it, in our Solid blog site and conference), a lot stands in the way of its promise. And these hurdles are more social than technical.

Participants eye O'Reilly books

Participants eye O’Reilly books (Credit: IoT Festival)

Some of the social discussion we have to have before we get the Internet of Things rolling are:

  • What effects will all this data collection, and the injection of intelligence into devices, have on privacy and personal autonomy? And how much of these precious values are we willing to risk to reap the IoT’s potential for improving life, saving resources, and lowering costs?

  • Another set of trade-offs involve competing technical goals. For instance, power consumption can constrain features, and security measures can interfere with latency and speed. What is the priority for each situation in which we are deploying devices? How do we make choices based on our ultimate goals for these things?

  • How do we persuade manufacturers to build standard communication protocols into everyday objects? For those manufacturers using proprietary protocols and keeping the data generated by the objects on private servers, how can we offer them business models that makes sharing data more appealing than hoarding it?

  • What data do we really want? Some industries are already drowning in data. (Others, such as health care, have huge amounts of potential data locked up in inaccessible silos.) We have to decide what we need from data and collect just what’s useful. Collection and analysis will probably be iterative: we’ll collect some data to see what we need, then go back and instrument things to collect different data.

  • How much can we trust the IoT? We all fly on planes that depend heavily on sensors, feedback, and automated controls. Will we trust similar controls to keep self-driving vehicles from colliding on the highway at 65 miles per hour? How much can we take humans out of the loop?

  • Similarly, because hubs in the IoT are collecting data and influencing outcomes at the edges, they require a trust relationship among the edges, and between the edges and the entity who is collecting and analyzing the data.

  • What do we need from government? Scads of data that is central to the IoT–people always cite the satellite GIS information as an example–comes from government sources. How much do we ask the government for help, how much do we ask it to get out of the way of private innovators, and how much can private innovators feed back to government to aid its own efforts to make our lives better?

  • It’s certain that IoT will displace workers, but likely that it will also create more employment opportunities. How can we retrain workers and move them to the new opportunities without too much disruption to their lives? Will the machine serve the man, or the other way around?

We already have a lot of the technology we need, but it has to be pulled together. It must be commercially feasible at a mass production level, and robust in real-life environments presenting all their unpredictability. Many problems need to be solved at what the Jim Gettys (famous for his work on the X Window System, OLPC, and bufferbloat) called “layer 8 of the Internet”: politics.

Large conference hall

Large conference hall. I am in striped olive green shirt at right side of photo near rear (Credit: IoT Festival)

The conference’s audience was well-balanced in terms of age and included a good number of women, although still outnumbered by men. Attendance was about 175 and most of the conference was simulcast. Videos should be posted soon at the agenda site. Most impressive to me was the relatively small attrition that occurred during the long day.

Isis3D, a sponsor, set up a booth where their impressive 3D printer ratcheted out large and very finely detailed plastic artifacts. Texas Instruments’ University Program organized a number of demonstrations and presentations, including a large-scale give away of LaunchPads with their partner, Anaren.

Isis3D demos their 3D printer

Isis3D demos their 3D printer (Credit: IoT Festival)

Does the IoT hold water?

One application of the IoT we could all applaud is reducing the use of water, pesticide, and fertilizer in agriculture. This application also illustrates some of the challenges the IoT faces. AgSmarts installs sensors that can check temperature, water saturation, and other factors to report which fields need more or less of a given resource. The service could be extended in two ways:

  • Pull in more environmental data from available sources besides the AgSmarts devices. For instance, Dr. Shawana Johnson of Global Marketing Insight suggested that satellite photos (we’re back to that oft-cited GIS data) could show which fields are dry.

  • Close the loop by running all the data through software that adjusts the delivery of water or fertilizer with little or no human intervention. This is a big leap in sophistication, reviving my earlier question about trusting the IoT. Closing the loop would require real-time analysis of data from hundreds of locations. It’s worth noting that AgSmarts offers a page about Analytics, but all it says right now is “Coming Soon.”

Lights, camera, action

A couple other interesting aspects of the IoT are responsive luminaires (light fixtures) and unmanned aerial vehicles, which can track things on the ground through cameras and other sensors.

Consumer products to control indoor lights are already available. Lighting expert John Luciani reported that outdoor lights are usually coordinated through the Zigbee wireless protocol. Some applications for control over outdoor lighting include:

  • Allowing police in their cruisers to brighten the lights during an emergency.

  • Increasing power to LEDs gradually over time, to compensate for their natural dimming.

  • Identifying power supplies that are nearing the end of their life, because LEDs can last much longer than power supplies.

Lights don’t suffer from several of the major constraints that developers struggle with when using many IoT devices. Because luminaires need a lot of power to cast their light, they always have a power source that is easily high enough to handle their radio communications and other computing needs. Second, there is plenty of room for a radio antenna. Finally, recent ANSI standards have allowed a light fixture to contain more control wires.

Thomas Almholt of Texas Instruments reported that Texas electric utilities have been installing smart meters. Theoretically, these could help customers and utilities save money and reduce usage, because rates change every 15 minutes and most customers have no window on these changes. But the biggest benefit they discovered from the smart meters was quite unexpected: teams came out to houses when the meters started to act in bizarre ways, and prevented a number of fires from being starting by the rogue meters.

A presentation on UAVs and other drones (not all are air-borne) highlighted uses for journalism, law enforcement, and environmental tracking, along with the risks of putting too much power in the hands of those inside or outside of government who possess drones.

MIT’s SENSEable City Lab, as an example of a positive use, measures water quality in the nearby Charles River through drones, producing data at a much more fine-gained level than what could be measured before, spacially and temporally.

Kade Crockford of the Massachusetts ACLU laid out (through a video simulation as scary as it was amusing) the ways UAVs could invade city life and engage in creepy tracking. Drones can go more places than other surveillance technologies (such as helicopters) and can detect our movements without us detecting the drones. The chilling effects of having these robots virtually breathe down our necks may outweigh the actual abuses perpetrated by governments or other actors. This is an illustration of my earlier point about trust between the center and the edges. (Crockford led a discussion on privacy in the conference, but I can’t report on it because I felt I needed to attend a different concurrent session.)

Protocols such as the 802.15 family and Zigbee permit communication among devices, but few of these networks have the processing power to analyze the data they produce and take action on their own. To store their data, base useful decisions on it, and allow humans to view it, we need to bring their data onto the larger Internet.

One tempting solution is to use the cellular network in which companies have invested so much. But there are several challenges to doing so.

  • Cell phone charges can build up quickly.

  • Because of the shortage of phone numbers, an embedded device must use a special mobile subscriber ISDN number (MSISDN), which comes with limitations.

  • To cross the distance to cell towers, radios on the devices need to use much more power than they need to communicate over local wireless options such as WiFi and Bluetooth.

A better option, if the environment permits, is to place a wireless router near a cluster of devices. The devices can use a low-power local area network to communicate with the router, which is connected to the Internet by cable or fiber.

When a hub needs to contact a device to send it a command, several options allow the device to avoid wasting power keeping its radio on. The device can wake up regularly to poll the router and get the command in the router’s response. Alternatively, the router can wake the device when necessary.

Government and the IoT platform

One theme coming out of State of the Union addresses and other White House communications is the role of innovation in raising living standards. As I’ve mentioned, there was a bit of discussion at the conference about jobs and what IoT might do to them. Job creation is one of the four goals of the SmartAmerica Challenge run by the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. The other three are saving lives, creating new business opportunities, and improving the economy.

I was quite disappointed that climate change and other environmental protections were left off the SmartAmerica list. Although I applaud the four goals, I noticed that each pleases a powerful lobbying constituency (the health industry, chambers of commerce, businesses, and unions). The environment is the world’s most urgent challenge, and one that millions of people care about, but big money isn’t behind the cause.

Two people presenting the SmartAmerica Challenge suggested that most of the technologies enabling IoT have been developed already. What we need are open and easy-to-use architectures, and open standards that turn each layer of the system into a platform on which others are free to innovate. The call for open standards–which can also create open markets–also came from Bill Curtis of ARM.

Another leading developer in the computer field, Bob Frankston, advised us to “look for resources, not solutions.” I take this to mean we can create flexible hardware and software infrastructure that many innovators can use as platforms for small, nimble solutions. Frankston’s philosophy, as he put it to me later, is “removing the barriers to rapid evolution and experimentation, thus removing the need for elaborate scenarios.”

Bob Frankston speaking

Bob Frankston speaking (Credit: IoT Festival)

Dr. Johnson claimed that government agencies can’t share a lot of their applications for their data because of security concerns, and predicted that each time a tier of government data is published, it will be greeted by an explosion of innovation from the private sector.

However, government can play another useful role. One speaker pointed out that it can guide the industry to use standards by requiring those standards in its own procurements.

Standards we should all learn

Both Almholt and Curtis laid out protocol stacks for the IoT, with a lot of overlap. Both agreed that many Internet protocols in widespread use were inappropriate for IoT. For instance, connections on the IoT tend to be too noisy and unreliable for TCP to work well. Another complication is that an 802.15.4 packet has a maximum size of 127 bytes, and IPv6 (the addressing system of choice for mobile devices) takes up at least 40. Clever reuse of data between packets can reduce this overhead.

Curtis said that, because most Internet standards are too complex for the constrained devices in the IoT, these devices tend to run proprietary protocols, creating data silos. He also called for devices that use less than 10 milliwatts of power. Almholt said that devices will start harvesting electricity from light, vibration, and thermal sources, thus doing without batteries altogether and running for long periods without intervention.

Some of the protocols that show promise for the IoT include:

  • 6LoWPAN or successors for network-layer transmission.

  • The Constrained Access Protocol (CoAP) for RESTful message exchange. By running over UDP instead of TCP and using binary headers instead of ASCII, this protocol achieves most of the benefits of HTTP but is more appropriate for small devices.

  • The Time Synchronized Mesh Protocol (TSMP) for coordinating data transmissions in an environment where devices contend for wireless bandwidth, thus letting devices shut down their radios and save power when they are not transmitting.

  • RPL for defining and changing routes among devices. This protocol sacrifices speed for robustness.

  • eDTLS, a replacement for the TLS security standard that runs over UDP.

Adoption of these standards would lead to a communication chasm between the protocol stack used within the LAN and the one used with the larger outside world. Therefore, edge devices would be devoted to translating between the two networks. One speaker suggested that many devices will not be provided with IP addresses, for security reasons.

Challenges that remain

Research with impacts on the IoT is flourishing. I’ll finish this article with a potpourri of problems and how people are addressing them:

  • Gettys reported on the outrageous state of device security. In Brazil, an enormous botnet has been found running just on the consumer hubs that people install in their homes and businesses for Internet access. He recommended that manufacturers adopt OpenWRT firmware to protect devices, and that technically knowledgeable individuals install it themselves where possible.

  • Although talking over the Internet is a big advance for devices, talking to each other over local networks at the radio layer (using for instance the 802.15.4 standards) is more efficient and enables more rapid responses to the events they monitor. Unfortunately, according Almholt, interoperability is a decade away.

  • Mobility can cause us to lose context. A recent day-to-day example involves the 911 emergency call system, which is supposed to report the caller’s location to the responder. When people gave up their landlines and called 911 from cell phones, it became much harder to pinpoint where they were. The same thing happen in a factory or hospital when a staffer logs in from a mobile device.

Whether we want the IoT to turn on devices while we sit on the couch (not necessarily an indulgence for the lazy, but a way to let the elderly and disabled live more independently) or help solve the world’s most pressing problems in energy and water management, we need to take the societal and technological steps to solve these problems. Then let the fun begin.


If you are interested in the collision of hardware and software, and other aspects of the convergence of physical and digital worlds, subscribe to the free Solid Newsletter — and to learn more about the Solid Conference coming to San Francisco in May, visit the Solid website.

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  • Robert Lucente

    This topic has been studied before. Check out books like
    The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown

  • BMGM

    “For instance, Dr. Shawana Johnson of Global Marketing Insight suggested that satellite photos (we’re back to that oft-cited GIS data) could show which fields are dry.”

    I just want to clarify that photos in the visible spectrum are not the best source of that information. Low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites use microwave channels to sense humidity and surface emissivity. For instance the SSMIS sensor flown by the USAF uses channels 17-18.

    http://cawcr.gov.au/projects/access/access_nwp/obsmonitoring/SSMIS/SSMIS.html

    Visible sensors, found on both LEO and HEO (geostationary) satellites are built with a visible sensor tuned for the green frequency of chlorophyll and other colors characteristic of common crops. An early heads up of food scarcity is a good indicator of future strife in an area.

    Before you ask your government “to get out of the way”, learn from their experience in data gathering and data analysis.