How the Internet of Things is revolutionising business
BT thinks The Internet of Things is about to undergo a revolution. Over the past two decades, we've seen IoT tech evolve from a possibility, to a novelty, to an established tool that plays a vital role in industry, infrastructure and logistics
This article first appeared in Wired
We've come a long way from the early days of connected tech. Now, thanks to investment and research from industry leaders such as BT, the technology behind the Internet of Things is getting some major upgrades in the form of new low-power networks, and the scale and ultra-low latency of 5G networks, as recently demonstrated in Canary Wharf with the UK’s first live 5G trial.
Beyond the hype, BT is already delivering IoT solutions to transform its own operations, as well as supporting its customers from small UK businesses to major infrastructure and public organisations.
When it comes to the retail Internet of Things, BT puts its money where its mouth is. BT Group runs over 600 EE stores in the UK and the tech giant is getting hands-on with the latest smart tools to make customers feel at home.
That includes face recognition systems that make a guess at a person's gender and age as they enter the shop. The anonymised data is aggregated and can be used to make changes on in-store electronic display boards – personally tuned messages appear, designed to speak to you as an individual.
But sometimes, you want tracking to be a bit more impersonal. At its Adastral Park research facility, BT showed WIRED its digital store of the future and how to potentially eliminate face-tracking entirely. Using floor-level cameras and smart recognition tech to identify people and follow their movements around a store using their shoes, a pair of well-loved trainers or polished biker boots makes a distinctive, but still easily anonymised, tracking target.
BT has also used customer-movement data to optimise the shop floor layouts and reduce the wait you can expect at service counters. Elsewhere, retailers can use IoT tags to follow products, rather than customers, on their journey around the shop, while futuristic in-store product comparison interfaces can scan an item and tell customers all about it.
Logistics and asset tracking for warehouses and shipping firms are probably the best-known industrial application of Internet of Things technology. With this kind of data, operations managers can see the exact location and status of anything from packages out for delivery to building site construction materials.
At any given point, BT Group and Openreach have around 50,000 huge cable drums at sites around the UK. Tracking data tells engineers and site managers exactly where each drum is and how much cable is left on it, providing at-a-glance information on the company's stock levels.
Stobart Group uses the same tech to track and deploy Britain's flood response capability in its management of the Environment Agency’s 1,500 stillages – containers used to transport equipment such as barriers and pumps.
Hardy, 4G-connected tracking devices on each container mean that the nearest equipment to any flood emergency can be located and sent out at short order: a potentially life-saving upgrade.
BT's IoT Strategy Director Guillaume Sampic says that "smart cities are definitely a grand ambition, which we can see happening over a period of years. The reality is that it's going to take some time, because a city is an extremely complex environment with a huge number of assets and many parties involved."
In Milton Keynes, BT has deployed everything from low-power air quality monitors and smart parking sensors to traffic-flow cameras, as well as developing, in co-operation with partners such as the Open University, a data hub that helps to import data from all sorts of different of sources, convert it into a widely compatible form and ensure that access to that information is appropriately restricted or made public. This project directly aids Milton Keynes in anticipating and managing traffic bottlenecks, helping the city in its plan to grow its population 20 per cent by 2025.
From smart cities and in-store digital assistants to utility networks that can speak to the hardware in our homes and smart university campuses, the globally connected future belongs to the Internet of Things.
Prof Paul Coulton of Imagination, Lancaster, who's been looking at the adoption and acceptability of IoT in the home, foresees a future where smart technology is widely integrated into buildings and easily accessible to utility companies. This would allow, for example, "greater flexibility in addressing peak energy demands by controlling devices remotely in exchange for preferential tariffs".
But not everyone's comfortable with data about their homes and activities being recorded and dispatched for crunching. Prof Coulton's research has found that users have "a desire for greater transparency over who has access to the data and why", as well as more control over what kind of data is collected.
Guillaume Sampic says that “as well as ensuring that personal customer information is protected, security has to be baked-in to business IoT at every stage, from development to deployment”.
And the solution has to be upgradable: "hackers constantly change the nature and provenance of their attacks, therefore we have to design products that can be upgraded over the air quickly and smoothly in order to defend against emerging threats".
The future of IoT for business, as envisioned by BT, will stand on a foundation of security, with a broad and open ecosystem for connectivity, and granulated control over user data where the public and the personal intersect.
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