A transformational supernova: The future of IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) is definitely the new mobile, by which I mean that it is now mandatory to refer to IoT whenever making any sort of futurecasting presentation. Whilst this may have lead to IoT being somewhat over exposed, I don’t believe it has been overhyped.

Indeed I suspect many companies are still significantly underestimating the impact it will have on their businesses, their customers and the world in which they operate and compete. The impact of IoT is going to be nothing short of transformational, dwarfing the impact of even the mobile and smartphone revolutions. Like an exploding supernova, it will lead to the birth of completely new industries and the disruption or extinction of existing ones.

As the world’s largest online-only grocery retailer, Ocado operates the two largest automated grocery fulfilment centres in the world and we are busy building two more. These warehouses contain many tens of thousands of sensors and have an enormous amount of machine to machine communication going on. And then we have our vans, streaming back all manner of data in real time such as GPS, wheel speed, fuel consumption, engine revs etc which we use to monitor and optimise our routes. And looking forward, the smart kitchen and the smart home are beckoning. So under the Ocado bonnet, IoT is nothing new for us, it just wasn’t called that until recently.

The rise of mobile app stores and cloud services has democratised the art of the software start-up, making it genuinely possible to setup a multi-million (or even billion) dollar worldwide business from your bedroom. But unlike the mobile revolution that was dominated by the big players, IoT will be an innovation battle fought with asymmetric warfare. The recent explosion of low cost hardware platforms for embedded computing (e.g. Arduino, Edison, mbed, BeagleBone, micro:bit etc), have democratised IoT experimentation, prototyping and even deployment, enabling SMEs, start-ups and even Makers to be important players in this revolution. As I type, this is going on in a teenage bedroom above my head!

So on the back of this, I believe we are going to see the birth of a new breed of engineer. One who is skilled in electronics and embedded software development to collect all the sensor and device data, but also skilled in the technologies required for streaming, storing and processing them in the cloud.

Indeed the zettabytes of IoT related data that will soon be heading for the cloud, all needing to be stored and processed somewhere, is manna from heaven for the cloud providers. It’s no surprise they are launching all manner of new technologies and services to support this impending data tsunami, including AWS’ Lambda, Google’s Brillo and Cloud Pub/Sub, Microsoft’s Azure IoT Suite and Salesforce’s Thunder platform, to name just a few.

But there are significant gaps in this exciting future that will need to be filled before they enlarge into major potholes. Discovery and Identity Management services will be essential for these devices if we are find them, know whom they belong to and decide which ones it’s safe to connect to. Many of them will need to be “deploy and forget” which will raise the bar not only for battery life but also for automated connection and configuration.

The density of devices is also going to be a challenge for existing communications technologies. Indeed in the next generation of automated warehouses that Ocado is currently building, we needed to solve the problem of how to control and choreograph dense swarms of robotic systems in real-time. This leads to the development of a completely new communications solution that has IoT applications far beyond grocery fulfilment.

New models for allocating and charging for communication costs be required to exploit shared infrastructure. Open standards will need to evolve to facilitate interoperability and data aggregation across different vendors. Legislation needs to play rapid catch-up to address the security and privacy implications of all these data and what they can and cannot be used for. And so on...

As the hardware platforms and cloud services proliferate, the gaps are filled and the devices are deployed, the technologies underpinning IoT will ultimately go feral. To get a glimpse of this you just have to observe the amazing ideas that children come up with when given access to these IoT building blocks. Indeed IoT has the potential for revolutionising the way we teach subjects across the curriculum.

But the really exciting opportunities lie at the intersection of IoT, smart machines and robotics. Where smart machines collide with IoT, you will have a lattice of smart machines talking to one another and collecting data from the world around them. Then when you add robotics to the mix, you will have smart autonomous mobile systems that are highly aware of the world around them and able to interact with it.

Bring it on!

Paul Clarke, Director of Technology, Ocado Technology

Image source: Shutterstock/weedezign