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An introduction to IoT

Home > What we do > Sensing, imaging, IoT > Internet of Things (IoT) > An introduction to IoT

Let's start at the beginning...

What exactly does ‘Internet of Things’ mean?

In its broadest sense IoT is a system of things using the internet or a private network to connect and communicate with each other.

What ‘things’?

We say ‘things’ but really mean ‘devices’ that are connected via the internet to each other. Your phone is probably such a device. Some watches are internet enabled.

Often, you’ll hear ‘smart’ added to the front of something to indicate that it can connect to the internet and chat to other devices, e.g., smartphone, smartwatch, smart lighting. In an IoT network, each device has a unique identifier and can transmit and/or receive data over a network connection.

But this is nothing new, haven’t devices been connecting to each other for years?

Yes, they have. But technology has advanced so much in recent times that we now have the capability to connect many more low cost, small, battery-operated devices to the internet. If we install a sensor on such a device, the sensor can first gather data, then send the information over the internet.

This, combined with the rise of low-cost cloud computing is enabling a vast amount of new opportunities.

Do IoT devices need to connect to the internet?

No, it’s quite common for IoT to operate in a closed private network, especially in industrial applications where control over a full system is required, or where there is no internet connectivity.

Everything is contained within a private network so that no data leaves the system.

What kind of ‘data’ is collected?

Sensors detect and measure changes, e.g., changes in vibration, impact, heat, light, energy, colour, gases and temperature.

So, you can create a system of sensors, all working together to measure information that is specifically relevant to your organisation. They measure, collect data and send it on.

Send it where?

Usually, the sensor will send the data to a data repository in ‘the cloud’ or local storage. It is stored, managed and organised in the cloud then forwarded wherever you want it to go.

If you want to measure air quality in a city centre street for example, the sensor system could gather the information, send the data to the cloud for you to then view the results on your desktop, smartphone or tablet.

IoT devices can also receive data which opens up the possibility of controlling devices such as switching on a light or changing a display.

But aren’t we all drowning in data already? Will the information be meaningful?

When the system is designed, software is built in to ensure that the data is converted to meaningful information. The sensor system will also be designed to measure the quality of data required to give value.

What you see is a ‘dashboard’ showing exactly the information you want to measure. You can set parameters to show only information that will affect decision making, rather than showing you every measurement.

Data analytics can also be performed on this data to extract trends, anomalies, and behaviours.

Is it private or can other people see the information?

Only you and those you authorise will be able to see it.

When setting up your system, you can specify the level of privacy and security you require.

We strongly advocate designing with privacy and security in mind from the start to ensure the system meets the needs of the application without compromising the integrity of the system.

Keen to read more?

If you want to read more about how to get started with IoT, have a look at our guide.


The road to IoT
From M2M to IoT

While IoT is a relatively new term, machine to machine communication (M2M) has been around for decades.

Starting with the development of the telegraph in the 1830s, through the first general communications networks such as ARPANET (the predecessor to the internet) and the explosion of personal computing beginning in the 1970s, M2M has been used for monitoring industrial machinery and reporting status information to a supervisory system. M2M communications were originally wired systems but the development of wireless cellular technology in the 1990s saw M2M become more prevalent.

The term ‘Internet of Things’ was coined by a British technologist, Kevin Ashton, in 1999. One of the first true IoT-type applications, however, was introduced at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the early 1980s. Thirsty computer science graduate students hooked up the campus vending machine to ARPANET to check if a drink was available (and cold), before leaving their desks.

The true difference between M2M and IoT comes with the proliferation of connected devices, driven by technology evolutions.

Technology evolutions driving IoT

Computing power

In 1965, computing scientist Gordon Moore, predicted that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit (microchip) would double every two years. This proved accurate for decades as more and more powerful computing capability became available in smaller and smaller packages.

Today, a smartphone has more computing power than all of the NASA computers used during the Apollo missions.

Computing cost

The exponential increase in microprocessors and microcontrollers has seen a similar reduction in the cost of computing power.

Wireless technology

The development of wireless networks such as cellular (2G, 2.5G, 3G, 4G and now 5G), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LPWAN and Satellite, has made the ‘connected’ part of ‘connected devices’ easier to implement, as they eliminate wired connections.

Low power electronics and battery technology

Although computing power density has increased enormously, improvements in power efficiency of electronics has meant that the IoT devices can be powered by small batteries for long periods (even years in some cases).

This, together with more efficient battery technology, has led to widespread use of wireless devices.

MEMS Technology

MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) is a technology using microfabrication methods to produce tiny (less than 1mm) devices, usually with moving parts, which can be incorporated into sensors and actuators with an extremely small size and cost.

Examples of typical sensors in a smartphone are: gyroscopes, accelerometers and microphones.

Take a look at organisations we have worked with

If you would like to find out more about our work with businesses of all sizes, public sector bodies and universities, we have highlighted some of the challenges we have faced together with our clients.