Preparing for the Internet of Things


There’s been a lot of talk lately about the “Internet of Things” and how technology will be changing the way we interact with our environment (or the way our environment interacts with us). There are all kinds of warm and fuzzy opinions about smart appliances and vehicles making our daily lives less tedious and more fulfilling. And there’s also a fair amount of doom and gloom expected from those who see this as the first step toward a post-human Orwellian nightmare landscape of people and products as interchangeable and expendable commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace.

Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on, the Internet of Things is a very real concept, living and growing every day. Whether by means of RFID chips, barcodes or near field communication, most objects produced today come with a means of cataloguing and tracking. There is no longer a valid reason to debate the validity or necessity of the IoT. All that is left for us to do is find a way to make the most of it.

What is the Internet of Things?

In general, the Internet of Things is a theoretical concept used to describe a scenario where uniquely identifiable objects and their virtual representations are all contained within a virtual organizational structure like the internet. As opposed to an internet of information like text, video, images – all of which require human input – an internet of things would contain cars, refrigerators, phones, sweater-vests, any and all things. Once the thing is created and circulated, information about it would be continuously updated without any user assistance, the idea being that we can maximize the value of these things by knowing precisely when they need to be repaired, replaced or restocked without the fallibility and imprecision of human input. In fact, some people may suggest that humans themselves will be “things” in the new internet.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase was originated in 1999 by Kevin Ashton. It has since become something of a buzzword in certain circles, and with the proliferation of “smart” devices, its popularity has continued to grow. It has been estimated that the IoT will be populated by over 50 billion “things” by 2020. Another term bandied about in this regard is M2M (Machine-to-Machine), the obvious inference being that machines can communicate with and make decisions about other machines without a bunch of squishy, emotional, hairless apes mucking up the procedure. In either case, the dawning age of integrated intelligence is intended to create a more energy-efficient, cost-effective, safer world.

What does this mean for SCADA?

The IoT should be a great thing for SCADA software. More “smart” objects with more sensors means more data to monitor. That should increase the demand for SCADA systems, and it undoubtedly will. Unfortunately, many small to medium-size businesses will not be able to take full advantage of these advances right away. It costs money to replace older equipment with new; and it costs money to by the sensors and communication devices that would be required to turn yesterday’s hardware into the intelligent objects of tomorrow.

In order for a company to make the leap into a more data-driven business model, it would seem to be necessary that the entire intelligent infrastructure of data points would have to be in place before any kind of data visualization software could be implemented. The time spent designing HMI (Human Machine Interface) screens and binding relevant data to them would be wasted if the entire process had to be repeated every time a new sensor is added.

The reality is that a new type of SCADA software will be required as we prepare for the new industrial revolution. SCADA systems will have to be more fluid, able to evolve and adapt to a changing workplace with changing information management needs. Innovative developers who recognize this trend and create software able to take advantage of these current conditions will set the new standard for HMI/SCADA vendors and consumers.

Data Modeling

One innovative way to account for the new data-driven workplace is to implement a SCADA system that employs data modeling. A data model allows you to define the types of data that will be monitored, and also allows for new types to be added quickly and easily as new smart objects are added to the process. In fact, data modeling may be the only way to accommodate an ever-evolving information matrix. If you buy a new sensor to add to a particular type of pump – and you’ve got 100 of these pumps – your data model will allow you to add the new property to the pump “type” and easily expose that property for all instances of the pump “type”. Then you can quickly and easily bind this property to a graphic on an HMI screen. And since the data model allows you to create a single “pipe” template and deploy the same HMI screen for every instance of pipe you want to monitor, it is possible to make these with a very small investment of time.

Data modeling also allows for all of these changes without requiring you to take the process down while you update your data visualization system. Since your graphics are bound to properties in your model, you can even update your model and your HMI screens before the new sensors are even installed, which again can save a tremendous amount of time.

The data model also creates possibilities for integrating new types of data from different sources; it allows for a SCADA system to integrate asset management and maintenance data, financial data, performance management data – virtually any type of data that can be made available can be incorporated into the model and visualized in whatever way we choose. The same system used to create virtual control panels for operating personnel can be used to create CEO dashboards.

The Internet of Things is expected by many to be every bit as much of a revolution as the internet of information that we use today. Already, many companies are changing their information infrastructure to adapt to the new world. It is becoming apparent that the old way of organizing information is no longer adequate. To take full advantage of the increased efficiency, reduced waste and lower cost promised by this new revolution, we have to change the way we manage our data.

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Smart Buildings – The Foundation of a Smart Planet

You walk into a room and the lights turn on. You look back and the lights are off in the room you just left. The temperature is perfect. You leave for work and all of your doors lock themselves. Your security system is armed automatically. Have you accidentally stepped through a time warp into the home of the future? Are you on the set of the latest sci-fi blockbuster? No. This is not the stuff of fantasy; this is the reality of today’s “smart” home. And it’s getting “smarter”.

With sensors to detect temperature, humidity, air quality – even carbon monoxide or radon, these buildings are often more aware of their environments than the people that inhabit them.

Of course the “smart” home is one type of smart building, but the majority of smart buildings are not residential; they are commercial or municipal. Today, building automation systems are used to heat and cool individual rooms or spaces, control security cameras and alarms, lights, water distribution systems, elevators – in general, if it moves or changes, it can be automated.

Today, we have numerous buildings full of sensors, controllers, and smart appliances. As the technology is now known to help in reducing energy consumption and controlling emissions, we can all be confident that we will see many more in the future. In fact, we are seeing the emergence of entire “smart” cities.

The Tip of the Iceberg

With the advent of smart building technology, we are at the precipice of a world very different from the one we know. We are soon to see entire smart communities composed of smart buildings, smart cars that drive themselves on smart highways lined by smart street signs and smart billboards.

And why are these smart buildings and smart cities necessary? Haven’t we done just fine without them? While that is certainly debatable, it is becoming difficult to deny that urban areas around the world have infrastructures that are severely strained by ever-increasing populations. The World Health Organization reports that in 2010 more than half of the world’s population lived in cities. They estimate that the number will increase to 60% by 2030. The United Nations estimates it will be over 70% by 2050. With power distribution systems, water management systems, sanitation systems, transportation systems and more encumbered by increased demand, and with the budget constraints that most municipalities face, there is a strong push toward increased efficiency and sustainability in cities around the world. Additionally, many governments are now enforcing laws mandating cleaner technologies and reduced emissions. 

The world in which we live is changing, as is the way we live in it. There are some obvious benefits, and as with any change there are some significant concerns.

What’s the Downside?

In the midst of all of the excitement about cleaner, more efficient cities with less waste and lower emissions, a few voices still can be heard crying “Stay out of my business, big brother!”. So, what happens when these technologies become tools for policing the population? Is there a line that has been crossed when some organization decides when your doors should be locked? Or what about whether or not your car will start? What if automation technology can be used to deny services to people based on arbitrary criteria? Are we moving too quickly into the future?

While some of these questions may seem like the unsettled ramblings of a reclusive conspiracy theorist, there are many people who consider these to be valid concerns. These are not new questions, though, and similar questions surface nearly every time a significant technological advance is made. There are far too many benefits to building a smarter infrastructure to think that it may not happen. It most certainly is happening right now, and the benefits are already being measured. While there may be legitimate concerns, the concerns will be addressed. There is more value in preparing ourselves for the reality of what's happening than in denying it.

Consider the Upside

Some of the benefits of smart building technology are cited above, including greater efficiency, reduced waste, less pollution, fewer accidents. These are obvious benefits that can save municipalities a great deal of money, while simultaneously creating a cleaner, more efficient world for us all. These technologies can reduce – maybe even eliminate – our dependence on fossil fuels. These technologies can create cleaner air, safer streets, and healthier, happier citizens.

While there may be some valid concerns, information and communication will help to alleviate many of them. We are living in a time with virtually unlimited access to information. There is no longer any good reason for us to live in ignorance. If we can stay aware of the new technologies that are being introduced into our environments, and stay abreast of any legislation that supports these new technologies, there is no reason for us to fear the future. What’s more important is the type of life we can lead in this “smart” world. Imagine a world of healthy people with more free time and fewer expenses. What new possibilities can come from a life unencumbered by the tedium of performing these simple daily tasks? This can be a liberating experience if we let it.

As our environments become more aware of us and our needs, new opportunities will arise. And these opportunities are not purely financial. There are real opportunities to improve the quality of our lives, and it is happening every day.