January 03, 2024
In the past decade, IoT, or the Internet of Things, has become increasingly prevalent in our day-to-day lives. Despite — or perhaps because of — the abundance of IoT devices commonly used in all sorts of places, it can often feel like a nebulous concept to define. So, what actually is the Internet of Things?
Welcome to Back to Basics, a series where we’re going to be reviewing basic engineering concepts that may require a more complex explanation than a quick Google search could provide.
Essentially, the term “IoT” refers to a system of real-world nodes that communicate data to a central online hub. Now, this statement may be accurate, but it’s also still a bit vague, right? To simplify things, let’s split the term into its two parts: the things and the Internet.
THE EYES AND HANDS OF THE INTERNET
We live in a world that is bustling with all kinds of information. Temperature, color, weather, how many steps you took three days ago, the number of cars on the road, how old your grandmother was in 1985… the list is endless. The “things” part of IoT are physical devices that exist in the real world and can either gather or influence data — like the listed items above.
These “things” can be further simplified into two categories:
Sensors take in real-world data, and turn it into digital data. For example, the heart-rate monitor in a smart watch collects real-world data (i.e. your heartbeat) and stores it online in a digital format.
Devices use that collected digital data to affect the physical space they exist in. Think of a garage door opener’s motor, which takes digital information, like the desired traveling speed, and translates it into real-world motion.
The “Internet” part of IoT is where all of this digital data goes. Sensors upload data to the internet, and affectors use that data to alter something in the physical environment. To enable these real-world “things” to share information, the internet is a perfect vehicle.
AN INTERCONNECTED WORLD
Now that we have a broad view of what IoT is, it’s easy to see why it’s so useful. Once we have an IoT base to work from, we can then use programs or algorithms to transform the world we live in more efficiently. As a general rule, a common way to market IoT devices is to describe them as “smart.” Because the device is IoT-enabled, it can be algorithmically controlled, making it “smarter” than the average non-IoT device.
A good example of a simple IoT system would be the smart thermostat, where a building’s climate is controlled by a piece of internet-connected software. You can use a mobile app or the thermostat itself to set a desired digital data value for the temperature. Then, sensors in your building take in the indoor and outdoor temperatures and use an algorithm to move the fan in your AC unit to quickly and efficiently meet that desired value.
Obviously, IoT use cases extend far beyond thermostats and smart home appliances. A large part of the IoT industry is the Industrial IoT (IIoT) sector, where these principles are applied on a large scale to factories and warehouses. Imagine a factory that can sense the temperature, output speed, material levels, and use that data to control every machine in the building. Does wonders for production efficiency and overall factory health.
Now, there are some concerns that can come with IoT. More internet-connected devices means there’s more personal and critical data out in the aether, where hackers could potentially access and exploit it — so security precautions are a must when dealing with IoT.
On a less critical level, conversations about standardization naturally arise as more smart devices from tons of different manufacturers hit the consumer market. Standards are essential to ensure these devices can play well together. We’ve seen this play out with standards like USB, allowing for diverse manufacturers to have plug-and-play functionality across the board.
IoT continues to be a growing edge on the tech industry, and now you know a little something about it! Don’t worry, there are a lot of other intricacies that relate to IoT’s applications, but at least now you know enough for some really riveting dinner party conversation.
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