A Beginner’s Guide to Internet of Things (IoT) 2021

IoT 2021
Illustration: © IoT For All

We can turn on the lights in our homes from a desk in an office miles away. The built-in cameras and sensors embedded in our refrigerator let us easily keep tabs on what is present on the shelves and when an item is close to expiration. When we get home, the thermostat has already adjusted the temperature so that it’s lukewarm or brisk, depending on our preference. 

These are not examples from a futuristic science fiction story. These are only a few of the millions of frameworks part of Internet of Things (IoT) being deployed today. 

IoT has redefined the way we interact, communicate, and go about our daily work. From homes to maintenance to cities, the IoT ecosystem of devices is making our world more innovative and more efficient.

In this guide, we will walk you through everything you need to know about the increasingly connected world of IoT. This guide discusses in-depth:

  • What Is Internet of Things (IoT)? 
  • The History of IoT 
  • Examples of IoT
  • Internet of Things Ecosystem: How Does it Work?
  • Sensor Technology & IoT
  • Benefits of Sensor-Based IoT
  • IoT & Data Security & Privacy
  • Key Takeaways & The Future of IoT

What Is IoT?

Internet of Things (IoT) encompasses all physical objects – i.e., “things” – connecting to the internet and other devices. 

The definition of IoT is evolving, as the term is increasingly being used to describe objects that interact and “speak” to one another, so we can have the opportunity to be more efficient in how we do things. 

More specifically, IoT devices are characterized by their ability to gather data on their surroundings, share this data with other electronic devices, and ultimately, help the end-user gain information, solve an issue, or complete a task. 

To visualize the concept, think of a time you’ve gone to the restroom in a hotel, and the light has turned on by itself. Ever wonder how that happened? There is probably a motion detection sensor that detects movement, which automates and connects to the light to turn it on. 

This is only one of the simplest forms of an IoT solution, as the technology is now being used to create larger ecosystems such as smart homes and smart cities. If you read your emails through a voice-controlled virtual assistant, measure your steps and heartbeat with a smartwatch, or control your security system through your mobile phone, you’re benefiting from IoT solutions daily. 

The History of IoT

The term Internet of Things was originated by Kevin Ashton in 1999. Still, the idea has been around for much longer and dates back to the early 80s with a Coca-Cola machine at Carnegie Mellon University. 

A group of students from the university designed a system to get their campus Coca-Cola vending machine to report on its contents to avoid the trouble of having to check if the machine was out of Coke. Aside from the inventory report, they were also able to make the devices let them know whether newly loaded drinks were cold or not.   

Later, In 1990, John Romkey connected a toaster to the internet for the first time. Not long after, another group of students at the University of Cambridge used a web camera to monitor the amount of coffee available in their computer labs. 

Then, finally, in 1999, the term Internet of Things was coined by Kevin Ashton during his presentation for Procter & Gamble, a multinational consumer goods corporation. When working there as a brand manager, Ashton was assigned to help launch a cosmetics line. He noticed that a specific shade of brown lipstick always seemed to be sold out, although many employees part of the supply chain would report that color as available in the warehouse. So, Ashton gave an “Internet of Things” presentation and suggested that each product has a radio frequency identification (RFID) tag that allows identifying and tracking specific objects throughout the supply chain. 

By the late 2000s to early 2010s, organizations worldwide were starting to become excited about IoT – similar to how they’re getting enthusiastic about AI and machine learning today. The International Business Machine (IBM) Corporation began to work on a Smarter Planet program, McKinsey started publishing studies on the condition of IoT technology. In 2011, Cisco announced that IoT was “born” around 2008 and 2009 when more machines or objects were linked to the web than people on the earth. 

IoT was initially most attractive to business and industrial development, where its usage is often referred to as machine-to-machine (M2M). Still, the focus has shifted on filling our homes and workplaces with smart devices, bringing benefits to almost everyone. As of right now, there are as many as 35 billion IoT devices installed all over the world – and the prospect by the end of 2021 is that the number will reach 46 billion.

Examples of IoT

Depending on their usage, we divide IoT devices into four main categories: consumer, organizational, industrial, and infrastructure applications.  

Consumer IoT refers to the dozens of personal devices, including smartphones, wearable technology, fashion products, and an increasing range of household appliances linked to the internet, continuously gathering and distributing information. 

In organizational settings, IoT is primarily widespread in the medical and facilities management field. Specifically, IoT devices are being used for remote monitoring and creating emergency notification systems for people, buildings, and assets. The COVID-19 pandemic has also urged the use of IoT for smart cleaning and smart occupancy so that workplaces of all types can return to the office with the help of technology. 

Industrial IoT (IIoT) brings devices, clouds, analytics, and people together to advance the execution and productivity of industrial processes. Industrial IoT (IIoT) enables solutions such as equipment monitoring, predictive maintenance, condition monitoring, error detection, and much more. 

Last, infrastructure IoT appliances enable monitoring and controlling operations of sustainable urban and rural infrastructures like bridges, railway tracks, and on and offshore wind farms. These technologies help the construction industry by cost-saving, time optimization, better quality workday, paperless workflow, and increased productivity.

IoT Ecosystem: How Does It Work?

IoT operates over a boundless network, and thus it requires various components to form a cohesive system. We divide these components into three main categories: input, analytics, and output. 

First, you need a device that gathers input from the real world. This is usually done through sensors that work to gather real-time data from their surrounding environment. They’re also often called “detectors,” as their primary purpose is to detect the slightest changes in their surroundings. For example, Smart ACs or thermostats work through a detector to sense room temperature and humidity and adjust accordingly. 

More often than not, these sensors/detectors can also be bundled together as part of a device that does more than just sense things: phones are made up of several sensors such as GPS, camera, compass, fingerprint detection, to help us perform a handful of tasks. 

For the sensor to connect to other devices and ultimately turn data into action, it needs a “medium of transport,” which is connectivity. Connectivity is responsible for transferring data into the online world. The most popular IoT wireless protocols and standards include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, DDS, cellular BLE, Z-wave, etc. The choice of the network depends on several factors, such as the desired speed of data, transfer, range, power consumption, and overall efficiency of the network. 

After data has been collected and has traveled to the cloud through a communication medium, it needs to be processed. This is the second component of an IoT ecosystem, where all of the “smart stuff,” i.e., context and analytics, takes place. The primary role of analytical tools is to investigate a situation and form a decision based upon the insight. This can be as simple as analyzing when a room’s temperature falls within the desired range or as complex as, for example, a car that’s close to a crash. 

The very last element of an IoT system is the end-user device or user interface. This is the visible device or application a user uses to access, control, and set their preferences. A user-friendly and attractive design is a significant consideration in today’s IoT world. Companies are continuously working on integrating convenient tools, such as touch interfaces, or colors, font, voice, to put themselves on solid footing for a great customer experience. 

Sensor Technology & IoT

For objects to be connected and IoT to come to life, there must be a device that gathers the information transmitted (the input). As we’ve mentioned, for many applications, this is done through sensors. 

Just what sensors are collecting depends on the individual device and its task. But broadly speaking, sensors are tools that detect and respond to environmental changes, which may come from various sources such as light, temperature, pressure, and motion. 

Because of the wide range of inputs IoT sensors can gather, they’re being used extensively in various fields and have become crucial to the operation of many of today’s businesses. One of the most critical benefits of these sensors is their ability to trigger analytical functions that warn you of potential issues, allowing companies to perform predictive maintenance and avoid costly damages. 

Benefits of Sensor-Based IoT

IoT Benefits For Hospitals & Restaurants

IoT is an excellent fit for healthcare and hospital services. 

For starters, IoT improves patient comfort. Through solutions such as smart thermostats, smart beds, and customizable lighting controls, patients can have a more enjoyable experience, reduce stress, and go through faster recovery. 

Next, IoT enables remote health monitoring and emergency notification systems through wearable technology – these include electronic wristbands, advanced hearing aids, wearable heart monitors, and so forth. Such devices allow physicians to monitor their patients with greater precision and ultimately come up with better-informed treatments.  

Another significant benefit of sensor-based IoT devices in hospitals relates to the safety of the patients and staff. Temperature sensors and cold storage ensure food, blood, and medications are stored safely. Water sensors prevent potential leaks and hazards; occupancy sensors monitor waiting for areas to control capacity; disinfection systems keep neighborhoods sanitary; and more. 

For example, UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has improved patient safety and reduced costs through sensors that automate daily hospital tasks such as medicine temperature checks, fire door monitoring, comfortable temperatures for patients, and much more. 

Another sector IoT has also significantly impacted is the food industry, specifically restaurants & restaurant chains.

The most prominent benefit relates to food safety and monitoring systems. With IoT temperature sensors, restaurants can remotely monitor their refrigeration 24/7 to ensure temperature changes don’t go unnoticed, lowering the risk of spoiled food and food waste. IoT apps can also remotely monitor equipment and troubleshoot potential problems to avoid their failure and the cost of repair. These apps even send restaurant managers recurring reminders to schedule maintenance. 

IoT Benefits for Buildings & Workplaces

Real estate and facilities management companies opt for IoT sensor technology and smart infrastructure to help reduce COVID-related concerns and risks. 

Say, for example, by placing a proximity sensor in bathroom stalls; the sanitary staff can get insights on how often workers use the restroom. Then, the team can clean whenever there is a need, based on actual bathroom occupancy instead of a manual cleaning routine. This validates cleaning schedules, optimizes the office’s resources, and increases the employee’s overall health & well-being. Proximity sensors can also ensure safe social distancing through reminder alerts to keep workers at appropriate distances from one another whenever the occupancy of a room starts to increase. 

IoT Benefits In Industrial Settings

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) uses smart sensors to enhance manufacturing and industrial processes. 

One of the most praised benefits of IIoT devices is that they enable predictive maintenance. Predictive maintenance means businesses can schedule their maintenance activities based upon accurate predictions about an asset’s lifetime. These benefits result in improved asset utilization, visibility of the asset’s condition, and optimal maintenance activities planning. 

A second significant benefit of predictive maintenance is in industrial facilities management and smart substations. Sensors can monitor vibrations, temperature, humidity, and other factors that could lead to poor operating conditions and alert management so they can take action to fix or prevent damages.  

IoT and Data Security & Privacy

With all these devices consistently gathering everything we do, IoT is susceptible to many privacy & security problems. 

The main issues today are cybercrime and the risks of data theft. Cybercriminals are constantly evolving and looking for methods to hack passwords, emails and impersonate staff to malware. And as the pandemic has forced people and businesses to go fully remote, there has been an increased focus on the issue. 

IoT’s security history doesn’t do much to prevent these issues, either, as many IoT devices fail to consider the basic protocols of security, such as data encryption, blocking tags, authentication, and so on. They operate over a long period without supervision or updates and work with cheap, low-cost systems prone to cybersecurity risks.  

With all this being said, some responsible manufacturers go the extra mile to fully secure the embedded software or firmware built into their products. 

So what can you do to own your data and privacy? 

The most important step is research – learn about your IoT solution supplier. How well do they comply with federal protocols and regulations? What are their privacy standards? Do they implement any encryption tools? 

And as dreadful we know it may be, it’s essential that you also read the terms of conditions for services, devices, and apps every single time to understand what you agree to.

Then, to reinforce your protection once you’ve purchased or installed a product, disable features that allow multiple devices to share data with third parties, constantly delete data history, install updates promptly, use two-factor authentication when applicable, and always create complicated, secure passwords. 

Wrapping Up

And that’s a wrap on our IoT guide!  

As the number of devices connected expands, our homes and workspaces will become increasingly overrun with smart products – presuming we are prepared to accept some of the privacy and security trade-offs. Some people will be happy about the upcoming world of advanced things. Others will miss the good old days when a table was indeed just a table.