A New Revolution Part 1: IP Enabled Smart Objects

E-mail Geoff Mulligan

By now most of us have become wholly reliant on our virtual connections and the devices—the cell phones, PDAs, and laptops—that drive them. As important as these communications tools have become, a new revolution in connectivity is taking place that is certain to be even more transformative, not only in enhancing our personal lives but in forging advances in energy conservation, health care, industrial productivity, national security, and countless other facets of our world. This first of two parts will give an introduction to embedded IP and IP for Smart Objects. In the second part we will cover the use and benefits of IP to the Smart Grid.

The breakthrough underway involves IP Enabled Smart Objects. Many of us are already familiar with smart objects at some level. A subway rider with a Metro Card or a driver with an EZ pass are both using a form of object-to-object communications, as is a homeowner whose residence is monitored electronically by an outside security company or whose heating system is checked remotely by the local oil supplier. Essentially, a smart object is any device that combines processing power with communications capabilities to exchange information, possibly in real time.

But smart-object technology has only lately begun to show its true potential with the advent of using the Internet Protocol (IP) and discarding closed proprietary protocols. This, coupled with the spread of broadband and low-power wireless networking and advances in micro-controllers and sensors, is defining a new class of low-cost yet extremely powerful devices that can digitize and communicate any sort of measured data. Today, tiny sensors or actuators can be embedded into virtually any machine, from a thermostat, light switch, or humidifier to a car engine or piece of heavy machinery, not to mention a toaster or a pacemaker. Thus these ordinary physical objects become end nodes, capable of conveying critical, up-to-the-second data via the local network, Internet, and the Web to systems, servers, and people anywhere in the world. With the use of IP there is no need to develop new protocols or to install and learn new technologies. With IP, the tools, knowledge, hardware, and software that we are already using can be leveraged.

The applications for smart object communication are vast. Much interest to date has focused on home automation market, where analysts project sales of wireless sensor-based products and services to reach $6 billion by 2012. Meanwhile, Smart Grid initiatives are prompting a new breed of energy management systems, such as smart meters that track energy consumption in a home or business in far greater detail than possible with conventional metering, and transmit usage data back to the utility for more accurate, real-time monitoring and billing. Utilities can get critical information from the smart meters on power quality, surges, and power outages as they occur to better direct the flow of electricity as needed across the grid. Consumers can use smart meter information to tailor their electricity usage to obtain cheaper, off-peak rates. Industry watchers estimate that more than 100 million smart meters will be introduced over the next five years with the potential to substantially lower both carbon emissions and energy costs. Other benefits of IP smart objects lie outside the energy grid, such as clock synchronization, safety alarms, security monitoring, and building and home automation.

Despite a highly ambitious agenda for object-based intelligence, the tools to carry out a full-scale revolution in IP smart object technology are very much at hand and will require neither a blast in computing power nor huge investments to create new networks or protocols. Pretty much any form of communication between objects can be achieved through existing, open Internet Protocol standards that have been in place since the mid-1970s. Current IP networks are fully scalable to accommodate even the most complex or far-flung linkage of smart objects. Protocols such as 6LoWPAN and ROLL allow for the efficient transmission of IP data over inexpensive, low-powered radio technologies such as IEEE 802.15.4.

In the past year, the IPSO Alliance, representing some 50 leading and emerging technology, energy, and communications companies, has been conducting a series of demonstrations showcasing the interoperability between physical objects using the IP. During one recent test, more than 100,000 temperature, humidity, and light sensor readings were drawn from stationary sensors in locations across the U.S., Europe, and Asia. Each sensor was linked using only off-the-shelf hardware, including basic routers, and without the need for proprietary protocols. Many of the sensor nodes were battery operated and cost only a few dollars apiece.

Harnessing readings from a group of transcontinental sensors is impressive, but the same infrastructure could easily scale to tens of thousands or even millions of nodes, with zero negative impact on the quality of data captured. Thus, sensors could be deployed in locations to monitor environmental factors such as temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels around the globe, or in helping retailers keep better tabs on worldwide sales.

The IPSO demonstrations have proven that large-scale IP smart object communication is not a futuristic fantasy but a reality. A reality that is available and affordable right now and that continues to advance the ability to instantly access information from the simple devices and physical environment in our lives. The enhanced connectivity between devices is expressly designed to engage us in making informed decisions about making our world safer, greener, healthier, more efficient, and far less wasteful, not to mention more fun.

Part Two of this article will discuss the use and benefits of IP Smart Objects in the Smart Grid. Additionally the IPSO Alliance will be hosting a webinar on September 14, 2010 with speakers from IBM, Cisco, Duke Energy and others to provide both a technology overview and end user perspective of IP for Smart Objects. More information on the webinar will be available at the IPSO Alliance website .

Geoff Mulligan, a longtime network technologist, is chairman of IPSO Alliance, which advocates for use of Internet Protocol as the standard for smart object communications. He can be reached at [email protected].