The horizontal nature of the Internet of Things

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Last year, there were more than 10 billion units connected to the Web – a number that is predicted to increase by a magnitude of five by 2020. These connections affect the way data is moved and will undoubtedly affect the way energy is moved, as well as the future of the smart grid.

FierceSmartGrid caught up with Oleg Logvinov to discuss the reality of the Internet of Things related to the smart grid.

Logvinov is an IEEE member who has been driving the development of IEEE Standards Association's (IEEE-SA) Internet of Things (IoT) workshops, including hosting over 200 attendees at the recent IoT workshop in Silicon Valley, Ca. He currently serves on the IEEE-SA Corporate Advisory Group and the IEEE-SA Standards Board. Logvinov helped found the HomePlug Powerline Alliance and today serves as its CTO and as a board member.

FierceSmartGrid: For the record, would you share your view of what the Internet of Things (IoT) means?

Oleg Logvinov: It's like blindfolded men and the elephant. The IoT is multi-faceted and it means different things to different people -- especially those directly involved with it. Anyone looking at it from a professional point of view is focused on how it applies to a specific, vertical industry. It could enable home energy management systems, or it could play a major role in e-healthcare.

I think of smart grid as a core subset of IoT -- a smart power grid will encompass many smart things in the Internet of Things, from smart homes and buildings to smart cities, from renewable energy integration to the electrification of transportation.

I tend to think of it as a collection of products, technologies and services -- not necessarily new technologies, but existing technologies -- with new applications, new integrations, and potentially new business models built on the existing Internet, which functions as a sort of "highway" that connects devices and applications in many vertical domains.  

FierceSmartGrid:  Is this a nascent concept or is it a tangible reality at this point?

OL: It depends on the vertical we're talking about. In many cases, it's real -- but it also offers enormous opportunity for growth and development.

Take the smartphone, for example. It tracks our location and offers us location-based services. It notes your musical and browsing preferences. And it connects with various services that offer practical value. That's real.

In the near future, it could communicate via Bluetooth with a health monitor on your wrist and access a service monitoring your pulse or other physiological functions. And the technology to deliver that exists today. The delay is due to business, regulatory, and standardization challenges that have to be solved. Very soon that concept will evolve to offer us absolutely astonishing applications. Those are nascent at this point.   

FierceSmartGrid:  Can you relate the IoT to smart grid?

OL: I think of smart grid as a core subset of IoT -- a smart power grid will encompass many smart things in the Internet of Things, from smart homes and buildings to smart cities, from renewable energy integration to the electrification of transportation. All the elements of smart grid, from generation -- centralized or distributed -- to transmission to distribution, where the real action is, will be nodes on the IoT. Smart infrastructure, automated buildings and manufacturing, personal networks -- all of these advancements will function more optimally with smart grid in place.     

FierceSmartGrid:  Would you name one unknown factor that's important in all this?

OL: We don't yet know the true value of personal data. There's no doubt that that the value of this information is rising. What will be its value when we access a third-party service for the value-add?

The value of data in various scenarios will affect other links in the chain. For instance, one discussion right now among stakeholders is whether, and how, to allow third parties to use your energy-use data to provide further value. Data retention also is an issue. If you think about a simple security camera in a store, its cost/benefit ratio changes if you have to store more than a couple weeks' worth of data. However, mining that data much later might yield great value. I would take the recent activities of Facebook in the deep-learning space as an indication of the trend.

As for data privacy, I see in the near future the consumer gaining control of their settings for the level of the exposure of his or her data to third parties. Perhaps the consumer will be enabled to share harmless abstraction of the data while keeping critical data completely private. We know that certain data enables value creation for both the consumer and the third party, but how that shakes out remains unknown. Although it is becoming clear that as the value offered increases, concerns about data privacy also tend to increase.

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FierceSmartGrid: What's the IoT's relevance to the public at large?

OL: The IoT will be a vast network of smart devices and applications working together behind the scenes, making our lives more comfortable, more efficient and making us smarter, whether we're talking about the smart grid, home energy management by smartphone or predictive algorithms, e-healthcare, e-commerce, or even just new levels of access to information and knowledge wherever we're located.

One major impact on consumers is that the IoT should reduce costs in these vertical industries. It's quite possible that smart grid, with smart meters, automated distribution systems and edge-of-grid innovations such as distributed generation and electric vehicles will be the earliest, most noticeable manifestation of IoT in the industrial sector.

FierceSmartGrid: What is the implication of holding the IoT workshop around the world?

OL: It's important to realize that the IoT is not regional or local -- it's a global initiative. Ultimately, if done correctly, IoT will connect technology hubs all over the world. To help facilitate this vision, IEEE-SA has already held workshops that position IEEE as a platform for doing business and for many vertical industries to come together and explore synergies. More specifically, the IEEE-SA may be instrumental in the development of a core technology platform that can drive the convergence and accelerate the growth of the IoT market. Repurposing of technologies and convergence of diverse applications is a key theme with IoT.

FierceSmartGrid:  At a recent workshop you gave a keynote address titled, "Sensors and the Internet of Things Can Help Us Live Longer." Sounds like a healthcare use case for IoT. Would you share a few points from your talk?

OL: I think of this topic in terms of the humanization of technology. We're going to see wearable technologies that won't call attention to themselves because they're miniaturized and embedded in common personal accessories.

It's quite possible that smart grid, with smart meters, automated distribution systems and edge-of-grid innovations such as distributed generation and electric vehicles will be the earliest, most noticeable manifestation of IoT in the industrial sector.

Bio sensors might be integrated into contact lenses, for instance. Those sensors will transmit and perhaps receive data communications. Higher levels of insight into your current state of health will be achieved by fusing multiple data sources together, perhaps accessing applications that reside in the cloud. For decisions that require speed and low computing power, embedded intelligence makes sense. For applications that involve a lot of data and computing power, the cloud may be the solution. Thus, the whole cycle of monitoring and diagnostics, including molecular diagnostics, plus therapeutics and personal care will be made possible wherever the patient is located. Tiny drug delivery devices -- nano pumps -- could be implanted under the skin and activated remotely or even automatically as needed, as indicated by the sensor data. The global market for these advancements is in the tens of billions of dollars (if not more) and the savings to everyone is many times that amount.

Between sensors, microcontrollers and wireless communications, we can make technologies smart, secure, connected, low power and manageable. But more importantly, the wealth of this data will enable us to predict problems before we can see significant symptoms, and we all know that prevention is the best treatment. The impact of that on our lives is hard to express in a numerical form. I spoke on healthcare, but this will become true for home and office, the automotive industry, urban infrastructure -- you name it. The IoT challenge is the multi-disciplinary complexity of the use-case scenarios, which require collaboration between the major players in the relevant ecosystems and technology areas. We believe these workshops facilitate that collaboration.

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FierceSmartGrid:  Can you share some insight regarding standards and IoT, what's being done to address the gap and what is the timeframe for resolution?

OL: We need cross-domain standards, mostly in the application layer. The technology world is composed of isolated siloes and they need to become connected to one another. If the IoT is a vast ocean, technology siloes are like tiny, scattered islands. I've mentioned the efficacy of developing core technology platforms that can serve various vertical industries. The same thing is true for applications. Take the example of smart homes and automated building architectures. For the end user, it would be best if all the related applications had a similar look and feel. You don't want one unique set of applications for energy management and a whole other set for your information and entertainment needs.

Repurposing of technologies and convergence of diverse applications is a key theme with IoT.

Timeframes regarding standards are notoriously difficult to predict. However, because standards help us optimize investments in product development and grow markets, and consumer demand will be strong, the market incentives to develop "missing" standards are powerful. It will get done sooner rather than later. We have already started building bridges among these scattered islands and I am optimistic that we will develop this vast land mass.

FierceSmartGrid:  We've touched on data security -- Interconnecting everything really does highlight the concerns, doesn't it?

OL: The media is always hungry for scandal. Imagine if a kid hacked into someone's pacemaker. That would leave a huge dent in the specific industry responsible for the product. So as we develop pervasive connectivity we'll need to be very careful with security measures. We may need firewalls at microscale to preserve the integrity and safety of systems we're connecting. So, layers of security are appropriate to the criticality of the application.

FierceSmartGrid:  The challenge sounds immense. How do you foresee all of this coming together?

OL: This is indeed a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary challenge. We'll need to foster an ecosystem of partners to solve such a large-scale task. To create a deep portfolio of enabling technologies, we'll need processing power, security, localized analytics, imaging -- all of that will need to come together to provide a platform or platforms for this environment. Perhaps the main complexity is forcing the direction of technology. Yet that's one of the main benefits of being directly involved.