Fueling the IoT revolution is a combination of ubiquitous connectivity, low-cost sensors, and microelectronics that allow almost anything to be connected to the Internet. The greatest enabler of IoT applications for business may be the smartphone, with its ability to optically scan bar codes or RFID tags.
"Even simple phones support manual data entry of serialized identifiers such that an individual item can be tracked," says Stephen Miles, research affiliate and consultant at the Auto-ID Labs and Center for Biomedical Innovation at MIT, both of which are working on IoT projects.
The rise of mobile devices and steadily decreasing prices for components, such as Wi-Fi radios, GPS chips, and 8-bit controllers with flash memory, have Gartner predicting that nearly every industry will be affected by the IoT. The research firm cautions, however, that the IoT "will be widely adopted only if the technology is available to all [including consumers] in a way that is inexpensive and easy to use."
For all its whiz-bang futuristic appeal, IoT presents compelling business benefits, especially for organizations prepared to make the most of the stream of real-time data that will come from networked physical systems.
"IoT technologies allow for real-time and accurate data sensing and wireless transmission of that data to Web applications and servers connected to the Internet," says Ronak Sutaria, lead researcher at technology consulting firm Mindtree. "This leads to a more precise and accurate monitoring and control of physical systems."
loT-related technologies are already being tapped in a variety of industries, Sutaria says. For example, agricultural companies are monitoring crops in real time to improve the yield quality of produce and to conserve the resources needed for farming, including pesticides, fertilizers, and water. Utility companies have implemented smart meters to monitor energy, gas, and water consumption, and municipalities are launching "smart city" projects to help ease traffic congestion, improve waste management, monitor energy radiation from cellphone towers, and control street lights.
Some of the more successful and instructive endeavors have come from the health care sector. Great River Medical Center is one health care organization that's connecting many of its medical devices into a network using Microsoft's Windows Embedded, a family of operating systems designed for use in embedded systems.
The deployment "spans our entire operation of medication management, from anesthesia workstations that monitor controlled substances in our operating rooms, to automated and secure cabinets that track and dispense medications at nursing stations, to an inventory management carousel in our pharmacy that records medication levels, automatically reordering when medications are needed," says Darwin Cooley, director of pharmaceutical services at Great River.
The devices are all connected to a central server running Windows Server with a SQL Server database. Each medication is bar-coded in a single-dose package, Cooley says, which the medical center is able to track and control during each step throughout its facility.
"The big driver from our administration and board of directors was to be more cost effective," Cooley says. "Automating the distribution of our medications drives efficiency, keeping down personnel costs, as it's much more efficient than people running all over the hospital to take medications out to the patients each time a prescription is written."
The automated bar-code system is designed for patient safety, tracking medications at each step to assure the correct dose is being administered to the right patient.