The term Internet of Things (IoT) was coined around 2000 and centers on the idea of taking some hardware, some software, giving them connectivity and using data gathered by these devices to glean actionable insights into our lives and businesses. Which sounds simple enough.
But, the IoT industry has grown substantially in the last five years. With approximately 5 billion connected devices in the world today, that number on track to quintuple in the next five years, IoT has been taken to an entirely new level. And this massive increase in the number of connected devices has some very powerful implications for the world in which we live.
It’s still too early to tell what the most significant outcome of a fully connected world will be but Charlie Key intends to find out. He recently launched his latest company Structure. The startup is an IoT platform that enables people to build processes around their connected devices and then turn the data collected into something useful and actionable.
Charlie had interesting insights into the world of IoT – some exciting opportunities but also some significant challenges the industry will have to overcome.
The Possibilities are Endless
And that’s not a hyperbolic statement. They really are endless. Up until now, IoT has been used for things like smart homes and smart offices. These solutions really boil down to turning lights on and off with your phone – it’s nice and convenient but really just a remote control for your life. Charlie sees a bigger future for the industry.
“Where it becomes valuable is when we start putting processes together and automating them,” he explained. “That’s when the whole notion of IoT starts really adding value.”
Using the example of a smart home, it’s possible to envision an entirely connected house that can do things like control the air quality, conserve energy usage and even help guide you to a safe route in the event of a fire or disaster.
Manufacturing is another industry ripe for IoT solutions. For example, if workers stray to an unsafe part of the factory floor, a connected factory can shut down machinery to keep them safe. Connected devices could also monitor energy usage and shut down unused machines, ultimately saving the manufacturer money.
“These automatic actions you can take with data at the center is truly where we want to go” said Charlie. “This is just the beginning of looking at the data humans and machines create and beginning to understand how we can make a safer more efficient world.”
Future Challenges for IoT
While the implications of a fully connected world are impressive, there are some issues that still remain for the industry. Chief among them – how do we ensure the security of our devices?
“The real risks from the security side are malicious people getting a hold of our data. Everything from where we’re at to where we’re sleeping to where we bank and where our kids go to school,” Charlie said. “But there are a lot of very smart, good groups of people working on this stuff.”
Security is not a new problem though. Since the beginning of the Internet, security has been a huge, difficult issue to solve. And, since the beginning of the Internet, lots of people have worked to solve it.
A new problem created by increasing connectivity is actually connecting and transmitting data between devices. We already have solutions like Wi-Fi, cellular networks and Bluetooth but these have drawbacks and are not ideal for all situations. As an example, Wi-Fi might have the ability to quickly transmit large amounts of data but it requires a lot of power and its range is not the greatest.
“Think about it like a grid and on the edges of the grid we have to have some connectivity to the internet – wi-fi, hardlines, doesn’t matter,” Charlie explained. “Inside of that grid you have a million different options on how devices talk to each other and get data to the edge.”
Lora, for instance, is a group out of Orange County, CA pushing for LoRaWAN – a low-energy wide-area network, as the open global standard for IoT connectivity. There is also a company called SigFox working on similar connectivity solutions in Europe.
Once the IoT industry has solved for security issues and connectivity issues, the last piece of the puzzle is openness. In other words, ensuring the industry has open protocols and open systems. In Charlie’s eyes, for IoT to be successful, everyone needs to know how device A talks to device B.
“Openness will help drive adoption and integration and inter-operability across a lot of different devices,” Charlie said, “Companies are adding value at all levels of the stack and people are willing to pay for that. So it’s not that I’m saying it’s a free world but there’s certain pieces that need to be open. Just like we’ve seen on the web.”
Bright Future for IoT in Cincinnati
Despite the challenges the IoT industry faces, Charlie thinks Cincinnati should have a bright future within the industry. Especially given the concentration of logistic and manufacturing companies in the area.
“Where I think IoT is going to make the biggest leaps and bounds over the years is logistics and manufacturing and that’s where we’re at,” he said. “If you go 200 miles around us, you’ll find the owners of the majority of logistics and mid-tier manufacturing in the US. This region was built on those industries and, for what we’re doing with Structure, it puts us in one of the best places
in the world.”