The Internet of Things (IoT) has a remote control problem — devices are operating independently with no knowledge of each other’s existence. Even systems that are supposed to work together don’t do so easily, such as the Apple TV and just about any output device.
We need a digital age of enlightenment and openness to unleash the full potential of the IoT. This means standardizing cross-device and multi-platform communication, and building user interfaces that are easy to use.
If technology vendors won’t come together to enable better integration between devices in the home, maybe something as drastic as the current drought in California will motivate them.
Witness the burst of innovation as companies scramble to help farmers, municipalities and consumers save precious water. This is a scenario in which big data, automation and smart technology can not only impact lifestyle and convenience, but also affect economics and sustainability. If ever there was a time for IoT vendors to come together and adopt standards, this is it.
California is in its fourth consecutive year of drought, and the state of emergency has led to a rush to market in the agricultural technology space. Old-school companies like John Deere have added sensors to their equipment to help farmers plan where and when to plant. Intel is helping the University of California, Santa Barbara measure snow patterns in the Sierra Nevada mountains. IBM is using sensors and AT&T’s LTE wireless network to warn cities about leaks in underground pipes and drainage systems.
As a result, the agtech funding floodgates are wide open. The first half of 2015 saw 228 venture capital deals, worth $2.06 billion — nearly reaching the record $2.36 billion invested in all of 2014, Of the recent deals, $525 million involved water-oriented startups. Companies like CropX and OnFarm offer smart irrigation technology, using sensors to prescribe water delivery that optimizes crop yield while saving water.
These companies are ambitious, and are taking their cues from the biggest players in technology. “We want to be the Apple of agriculture, in terms of sleek software and hardware integration,” says CropX CEO Isaac Bentwich. “And to be the Google of agriculture in dealing with the massive flow of information that comes from the Internet of Things.”
If we start sharing information and capabilities, and thinking more holistically, we may just be able to solve a lot more than the water problem.
The more connected devices, the higher quality the data and the more effective the overall system. Scale isn’t a problem: The number of connected devices is estimated at five billion, and is projected to grow to 25 billion by 2020, according to Gartner. We’ve got a growing number of smart devices, from alarm systems and washing machines to wearable personal safety devices and contact lenses that measure glucose levels. Outside the home, there’s a big push for the IoT in healthcare, which is projected to be a $117 billion market by 2020.
The next wave for the IoT will be enabling communication between devices and systems, and taking a more open-source view into the data collected. The real promise is in closing the data loop and using that information to trigger actions.
To enable this, we’ve got to release the data from their current silos and standardize on networking protocols. Currently, developers must choose from a number of platforms, networking choices and other protocols: Google’s Brillo, Apple’s HomeKit, ZigBee, iBeacon, AllJoyn, Bluetooth Low Energy, 6LoWPAN and RFID, to name a few.
Without standards, devices aren’t speaking to each other, and information isn’t cross-pollinating. As a result, our “smart” systems lack contextual understanding. Lawn watering systems, for example, should activate home sprinklers based on temperature and precipitation data from home thermostats and weather apps. In the absence of this data sharing, we’re left running outside in the middle of the night to turn off the sprinklers. We have a universal remote for the IoT — there are two billion smartphone users in the world, after all — but interoperability remains unresolved.
The IoT won’t be the rainmaker in California, but it can help us better manage our water when it comes. The drought might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back on IoT standards. We have the investment, innovation and urgency to catalyze a major shift. Who knows: If we start sharing information and capabilities, and thinking more holistically, we may just be able to solve a lot more than the water problem.