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PM Essence

Internet of Things – What does it mean to you and me?

By - Sadagopan S.
IT industry is often termed as a manufacturing industry that manufactures acronyms! IoT (Internet of Things) is one such acronym, perhaps the most discussed in recent times; the way we have learnt of acronyms like RAM /ROM in 60's, OS in 70's, DBMS in 80's, TCP/IP in 90's and LTE in the last decade. With IT industry impacting the life of practically everyone in the planet – thanks to 2+ billion PCs and 5+ billion mobile / smart phones today – there is widespread interest in knowing the impact of new IT technology that is “hot”. Professional societies like IEEE respond to such a societal need by de-mystifying such emerging technologies. This column is one such attempt.
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“The baggage handler routinely captures the barcode identifier and feeds the information on to the computer network; the Airline staff only query the information fed into the computer network. ”.
 
Let me start with two examples
 
• Baggage handling in airports: In the globalized world everyone – Prime Minister to a peasant – travels across the continents, invariably using flights. A typical global traveller is occasionally faced with an embarrassing situation of “missed luggage” just before an important business meeting. Intercontinental flights – say Bangalore to San Francisco – would need a lay over at an intermediate situation, say Frankfurt, where one expects the Airline staff to “inter-line” transfer your baggage; while Airlines use sophisticated technology to guarantee 99+% accuracy, there are occasional “miss”, when one considers the fact there are millions of travellers flying everyday. With “bar-code technology” identifying all the baggage items and low cost but high accuracy devices bar-code used extensively across the Airport operations, and Airline computers capturing the baggage information, most of the times one would guarantee delivery of bags. Seasoned travellers and the “old generation” of travellers (including the author) would take the trouble of locating the Airline staff at the transit airport, show their Boarding Pass and request the staff to check, if the bags have been shifted to the next flight. The Gen Next travellers of the Internet generation “assume” that the transfer is done! Interestingly, technology exists to connect all the pieces of information without human intervention. The baggage handler routinely captures the barcode identifier and feeds the information on to the computer network; the Airline staff only query the information fed into the computer network. With Airlines capturing the e-Mail ID, phone number of most travellers routinely at the time of ticket booking, it is no “rocket science” to automatically “alert” the traveller about the baggage transfer through Voice / SMS / WhatsApp message; it is simply not done because the computers that operate the airport infrastructure and the computers that manage the Airline reservations do not talk to each other!
 
An even more interesting scenario; after landing at the destination, passengers wait near the “baggage belt” to collect their bags. With so many bags looking similar, if not identical, often you see passengers anxiously taking bags off the “belt”, realize it is not their bag and put it back. With less space (particularly in crowded airports) it is reasonably messy to see harried passengers jostling for the limited space with their luggage trollies. The confusion gets compounded when airport staff combines baggage of two or more flights (that landed within a short interval) together on to the same belt. Once again, it is not difficult using today's technology infrastructure to make the bags “talk” to the passengers concerned; for example, using short-term Radio (NFC for example) the bags can announce “Pick me up please” to the passengers when the baggage is just 10 feet away using voice, SMS or any other messaging channel. The technology is very much there, but integration is NOT!
 
• Uber Taxi Service: Starting in the Bay Area in United States, Uber Inc. visualized a “taxi hailing” service that “connects the dots” of today's technology. Using “Big Data” and “Analytics”, Uber found that oftentimes a traveller looking for a taxi in fact had a taxi near him / her (in fact within 100 m distance), but there was no way for him / her to know of such availability; similarly a taxi driver looking for a potential customer indeed had a customer within 100 m, but had no wherewithal to find, let alone reach, such a customer. Interestingly, probability of such availability is very high (nearly 90% in many cases), though both the parties just did not know of the other! Bridging such an information asymmetry, Uber has built an impressive service that exploits the technology already in place – smartphones with built in GPS capability, cloud infrastructure to store data, payment gateways and Analytics capability at the back-end. Today a Uber customer can install an App on an iPhone (or Android / Windows phone) and just press a button on the iPhone screen to “hail a taxi” and type the destination (Airport or Railway station, for example) that automatically locates the Uber Taxi drivers nearby (using mobile infrastructure, cloud services and algorithms) who in turn decide to accept the request or not and the algorithms prompting for Top 3 choices (in terms of waiting time and tariff); once the user accepts an alternative, the chosen driver is “locked” for the specific customer; the customer screen dynamically displaying the taxi location till it reaches the customer premise; the customer avails the service by pressing another button on the App screen and logs off by pressing yet another button on the App screen; within minutes the cloudbased server software computes the cost, charges the tariff amount to the customers' credit card / Bank account and after taking a commission (say 10%), credits the collected money to the bank account of the Driver, all with no human intervention! Uber has expanded beyond United States into Europe and Asia. They are present in Bangalore too! They even have a lower cost Uber X version for emerging markets like India.
 
These two examples demonstrate the way “things” (travel bags), “humans” (traveller, Airline staff, baggage handlers) and “computers” (Airline reservation networks, telecom service provider networks, Airport computer networks) “connect” with each other to deliver a “far superior service” than what is currently done. This perhaps is one example of IOT (Internet of Things)!
 
• The first generation of computer networks (Networking 1.0) connected computers; DARPA network or Indian Railway Reservation network, for example. The primary purpose of such an exercise was the optimal use of computing resources – processing power, disk space, files, and, programs –Remote login, FTP (File Transfer Protocol), for example. Communication to connect users, such as E-Mail was added to help in better resource utilization.
 
The second generation connected computers and human beings (Networking 2.0) through a standard protocol like TCP/IP so that things are simple to use for common users (not necessarily with computer science background); E-Mail evolved dramatically, but far more important services like Blogging, Facebook and Twitter emerged with emphasis shifting to users.
 
 In the third generation, computers, human brings and things (cars, traffic lights, air conditioners, thermometers, medical devices, ATM, elevators, printers, utility meters and factory / home automation equipment) beyond baggage handling equipment that I referred to in the example above, will be connected through your friendly smart phones and using “natural” interfaces like “touch”, “gesture” and “speech” (Networking 3.0). That is what IoT (Internet of Things) is all about.