Sensors remain critical to spread of Internet of Things

What happens with sensor design, cost, and security remains front-and-center with the Internet of Things, no matter how much we focus on advanced analytical tools and the growing power of mobile devices.

That’s because, on one hand, truly realizing the IoT’s full potential will require that at least some sensors get to the low-power, tiny size and cheap costs needed to realize Kris Pister’s dream of “smart dust” sensors that can be strewn widely.

On the other hand, there’s the chance that low-end sensors that don’t include adequate security firmware can’t keep up with the changing nature of security risks and may give hackers access to the entire network, with potentially disastrous effects.

That’s why several reports on sensors caught my eye.

PWC released a report, Sensing the Future of the Internet of Things, zeroing in on sensor sales as a proxy for increased corporate investment in the IoT, and concluding that by that measure, “the IoT movement is underway.” Based on its 2014 survey of 1,500 business and technology leaders worldwide, there was one eye-popping finding: the US lags behind the entire rest of the world in planned spending on sensors this year: 26% of Asian and almost as many from South America (percentage not given)  followed closely by Africa, with 18%.  The surprising laggards? Europe with 8% and North America, dead last at only 7%.  Hello?????

Equally interesting was the company’s listing of the industry segments leading the deployment of sensors and examples of the sensors they’re using:

  • Energy & Mining: 33%. “Sensors continuously monitor and detect dangerous carbon monoxide levels in mines to improve workplace safety.”
  • Power and Utilities: 32%.  Instead of the old one-way metering, “Internet-connected smart meters measure power usage every 15 minutes and provide feedback to the power consumer, sometimes automatically adjusting the system’s parameters.”
  • Automotive: 31%.  “Sensors and beacons embedded in the road working together with car-based sensors are used for hands-free driving, traffic pattern optimization and accident avoidance.”
  • Industrial: 25%. “A manufacturing plant distributes plant monitoring and optimization tasks across several remote, interconnected control points. Specialists once needed to maintain, service and optimize distributed plant operations are no longer required to be physically present at the plant location, providing economies of scale.”
  • Hospitality: 22%. “Electronic doorbells silently scan hotel rooms with infrared sensors to detect body heat, so the staff can clean when guests have left the room.”
  • Health Care: 20%. “EKG sensors work together with patients’ smartphones to monitor and transmit patient physical environment and vital signs to a central cloud-based system.”
  • Retail: 20%. “Product and shelf sensors collect data throughout the entire supply chain—from dock to shelf. Predictive analytics applications process this data and optimize the supply chain.”
  • Entertainment: 18%. “In the gaming world, companies use tracking sensors to transfer the movements of users onto the screen and into the action.”
  • Technology: 17%. “Hardware manufacturers continue to innovate by embedding sensors to measure performance and predict maintenance needs before they happen.”
  • Financial Services: 13%. “Telematics allows devices installed in the car to transmit data to drivers and insurers. Applications like stolen vehicle recovery, automatic crash notification, and vehicle data recording can minimize both direct and indirect costs while providing effective risk management.”

The surprises there were that health care penetration was so low, especially because m-health can be so helpful in diagnosis and treatment, while the examples of telematics seemed off the mark in the financial services category. Why not examples such as ApplePay?

More compelling were the relatively high rates of sensor deployment in high-stakes fields such as energy, utilities, and automotive: those are such huge industries, and the benefits of real-time data are so compelling that they show the IoT is really maturing.

Finally, the percentage of companies investing in sensors grew slightly, from 17% to 20%, with 25%of what PWC labels “Top Performers” are investing in them compared to 18% the previous year. Surprisingly, most companies don’t get it about sensors’ importance: only “14% of respondents said sensors would be of the highest strategic importance to their organizations in the next 3–5 years, as compared to other emerging technologies.”

Most important, 54% of those “Top Performers” said they’d invest in sensors this year.


Sensors’ promise as the size decreases — radically — and functionality increases was highlighted by The Guardian.  It focused on PragmaticIC Printing, a British firm that prints tiny, hairlike sensors on plastics. CEO Scott White’s hope is that:

” the ultra-thin microcircuits will soon feature on wine bottles to tell when a Chablis is at the perfect temperature and on medication blister packs to alert a doctor if an elderly patient has not taken their pills.

“With something which is slimmer than a human hair and very flexible, you can embed that in objects in a way that is not apparent to the user until it is called upon to do something. But also the cost is dramatically lower than with conventional silicon so it allows it to be put in products and packaging that would never justify the cost of a piece of normal electronics,” said White.


These uses certainly meet my test of real innovation: what can you do that you couldn’t do before. Or, as White puts it, “It is the combination of those factors [price and size] which allows us to start thinking about doing things with this which wouldn’t even be conceivable with conventional silicon based electronics.”

Another article that really caught my eye regarded a new category of “hearable” — and perhaps even, more radically, “disappearables” –sensors which the headline boldly predicted “As Sensors Shrink, Wearables Will Dis-appear.” But they were barely here in the first place, LOL!  The article mentioned significant breakthroughs in reducing sensors’ size and energy requirements, as well as harvesting ambient energy produced by sources such as bodily movement:

“Andrew Sheehy of Generator Research calculates that, for example, the heat in a human eyeball could power a 5 milliwatt transmitter – more than enough, he says, to power a connection from a smart contact lens to a smartphone or other controlling device.”

 The same article mentioned some cutting-edge research such as a Google/Novartis collaboration to measure glucose levels in tears via a contact lense, and an edible embedded microchip — the size of a grain of sand — and powered by stomach juices, which would transmit data by Bluetooth.
Elsewhere, a sampling of sensor design breakthroughs in recent months show the potential for radical reductions in costs and energy needs as well as increased sensitivity and data yield:

HOWEVER, as I said above, here’s what worries me. Are developers paying enough attention to security and privacy? That could be a real downfall for the IoT, since many sensors tend to be in place for years, and the nature of security challenges can change dramatically during that time.  Reducing price can’t be at the expense of security.

Let me know what steps you’re taking to boost sensor security, and I’ll mention them in a future post!

Smart Cities: opportunity … and danger if security isn’t a priority

Smart cities are one of the Internet of Things’ most promising areas — as well as one of the most potentially dangerous.

As this list of smart city initiatives shows, The IoT can reduce energy consumption, cut operating costs, and improve the quality of life. However, if hacked, it could also potentially paralyze an entire city and plunge it into darkness and/or create traffic gridlock.

As in so many other IoT areas, which scenario wins out will rest increasingly on making security and privacy in smart cities an absolute priority from Day 1, not an afterthought.

A recent New York Times article brings the issue to the foreground again, through the work of Cesar Cerrudo, an Argentine security researcher and chief technology officer at IOActive Labs, who showed what happens when idiots (so sue me…) decide not to make security a priority:

” (he) demonstrated how 200,000 traffic control sensors installed in major hubs like Washington; New York; New Jersey; San Francisco; Seattle; Lyon, France; and Melbourne, Australia, were vulnerable to attack. Mr. Cerrudo showed how information coming from these sensors could be intercepted from 1,500 feet away — or even by drone — because one company had failed to encrypt its traffic.

“Just last Saturday, Mr. Cerrudo tested the same traffic sensors in San Francisco and found that, one year later, they were still not encrypted.”

Even worse, Cerrudo found the same failure to bake in obvious security measures such as encryption in a wide range of other smart city devices and software.

The article goes on to cite a variety of very real cybersecurity threats to cities and critical infrastructure (don’t forget that about 85% of the nation’s critical infrastructure is in private ownership) including a break-in at a utility’s control network by a “sophisticated threat actor” that just guessed a password.

Among the measures Cerrudo suggests that cities take to reduce their vulnerability:

  • think of cities “as vast attack surfaces that require security protection just as a corporate network might.”
  • encrypt data, use strong passwords, and patch security holes
  • create computer emergency response teams (CERTs), for rapid response
  • restrict data access and monitor who does have it.
  • “Finally, he suggests that cities prepare for the worst, as they would for a natural disaster.”

He concluded:

“When we see that the data that feeds smart city systems is blindly trusted and can be easily manipulated — that the systems can be easily hacked and there are security problems everywhere — that is when smart cities become dumb cities.” (my emphasis)

Let me be blunt about it: whether in smart cities or any other aspect of the Internet of Things, if your attitude is “we’ll get around to security” after concentrating on product development, you’re irresponsible and deserve to fail — before your irresponsibility harms others.

BTW, here’s a great way for you to have a role in shaping tomorrow’s smart cities. IBM (who would have thunk it?  I suspect this is reflects Ginni Rometty’s change in direction and attitude at the top) has created People for Smarter Cities, a new site to crowdsource ideas for how to make cities smarter. It’s a great example of democratizing innovation, one of my IoT Essential Truths. I plan to contribute and hope you will as well!

Virtual Sensor Networks: a key #IoT tool?

I was once again honored to be a guest on Coffee Break With Game Changers Radio today with David Jonker and Ira Berk of SAP — it’s always a delight to have a dialogue on the Internet of Things with these two brainy guys (and hats off as well to moderator/host Bonnie Graham!).

Toward the end of the show, Ira brought up a concept that was new to me: virtual sensor networks.

I’ve got sensors on the brain right now, because I’m frankly worried that sensors that don’t have adequate baked-in security and privacy protections and which can’t be ungraded as new opportunities and threats present themselves may be a threat to the IoT because they typically remain in use for so many years. Ah, but that’s a topic for another post.

According to Wikipedia, Virtual sensor networks are an:

“… emerging form of collaborative wireless sensor networks. In contrast to early wireless sensor networks that were dedicated to a specific application (e.g., target tracking), VSNs enable multi-purpose, collaborative, and resource efficient WSNs. The key idea difference of VSNs is the collaboration and resource sharing….
“… A VSN can be formed by providing logical connectivity among collaborative sensors. Nodes can be grouped into different VSNs based on the phenomenon they track (e.g., rock slides vs. animal crossing) or the task they perform. VSNs are expected to provide the protocol support for formation, usage, adaptation, and maintenance of subset of sensors collaborating on a specific task(s). Even the nodes that do not sense the particular event/phenomenon could be part of a VSN as far as they are willing to allow sensing nodes to communicate through them. Thus, VSNs make use of intermediate nodes, networks, or other VSNs to efficiently deliver messages across members of a VSN.”

Makes sense to me: collaboration is a critical basic component of the human aspect of the IoT (one of my IoT “Essential Truths), so why shouldn’t that extend to the mechanics as well?). If you have a variety of sensors already deployed in a given area, why should you have to deploy a whole new set of single-purpose ones to monitor a different condition if data could be synthesized from the existing sensors to effectively yield the same needed information?

2008 article on the concept said the virtual sensor networks are particularly relevant to three categories where data is* needed:

“Firstly, VSNs are useful in geographically overlapped applications, e.g., monitoring rockslides and animal crossing within a mountainous terrain. Different types of devices that detect these phenomena can relay each other for data transfer without having to deploy separate networks (Fig. 1). Secondly, VSNs are useful in logically separating multipurpose sensor networks, e.g., smart neighborhood systems with multifunctional sensor nodes. Thirdly, VSNs can be used to enhance efficiency of systems that track dynamic phenomena such as subsurface chemical plumes that migrate, split, or merge. Such networks may involve dynamically varying subsets of sensors.”

That article went on to propose a flexible, self-organizing “cluster-tree” approach to create the VSN, using tracking of a pollution plume as an example:

“…  a subset of nodes organizes themselves to form a VSN to track a specific plume. Whenever a node detects a relevant event for the first time it sends a message towards the root of the cluster tree indicating that it is aware of the phenomenon and wants to collaborate with similar nodes. The node may join an existing VSN or makes it possible for other nodes that wish to form a VSN, to find it. Use of a cluster tree or a similar structure guarantees that two or more nodes observing the same phenomenon will discover each other. Simulation based results show that our approach is more efficient and reliable than Rumor Routing and is able to combine all the nodes that collaborate on a specific task into a VSN.”

I suspect the virtual sensor network concept will become particularly widespread as part of “smart city” deployments: cash-strapped municipalities will want to get as much bang for the buck possible from already-deployed sensors, without having to install new ones. Bet my friends in Spain at Libellium will be in the forefront of this movement!

Thanks, Ira!

*BTW: if any members of the Grammar Police are lurking out there (I’m a retired lt. colonel of the Mass. State Grammar Police myself), you may take umbrage at “data is.”  Strictly speaking, the proper usage in the past has been “data are,” but the alternative is becoming so widespread that it’s becoming acceptable usage. So sue me…


Apple & IBM partnership in Japan to serve seniors a major step toward “Smart Aging”

As Bob Seger and I prepare to turn 70 (alas, no typo) on Wednesday (as long as he’s still singing “Against the Wind” I know I’m still rockin’) my thoughts turn to my “Smart Aging” paradigm, which combines Quantified Self devices that can change our relationships with doctors into a partnership and give us encouragement to do more fitness activities and smart home devices that make it easier for seniors to run their homes and avoid institutionalization.

That’s why I was delighted to read this week about Apple (obligatory disclaimer: I work part-time at The Apple Store, especially with “those of a certain age,” but am not privy to any of their strategy, and my opinions are solely my own) and IBM teaming with Japan Post (hmm: that’s one postal service that seems to think creatively. Suspect that if one B. Franklin still ran ours, as he did in colonial days, we’d be more creative as well…) to provide iPads to Japan’s seniors as part of Japan Post’s “integrated lifestyle support group” (the agency will actually go public later this year, and the health services will be a key part of its services).

Apple and IBM announced, as part of their “enterprise mobility” partnership that will also increase iPads’ adoption by businesses, that they will provide 5 million iPads with senior-friendly apps to Japanese seniors by 2020.  IBM’s role will be to develop app analytics and cloud services and “apps that IBM built specifically for elderly people .. for medication adherence … exercise and diet, and … that provide users with access to community activities and supporting services, including grocery shopping and job matching.”

The overall goal is to use the iPads and apps to connect seniors with healthcare services and their families.  I can imagine that FaceTime and the iPads’ accessibility options will play a critical role, and that current apps such as Lumosity that help us geezers stay mentally sharp will also be a model.

According to Mobile Health News, the partnership will offer some pretty robust services from the get-go:

“If seniors or their caregivers choose, they can take advantage of one of Japan Post Groups’ post office services, called Watch Over where, for a fee, the mail carriers will check in on elderly customers and then provide the elderly person’s family with an update. 

“In the second half of this year, customers can upgrade the service to include iPad monitoring as well.After Japan Post Group pilots the iPads and software with 1,000 seniors for six months, the company will expand the service in stages.”

Lest we forget, Japan is THE harbinger of what lies ahead for all nations as their populations age. 20% of the population was already over 65 in 2006,  38% will be in 2055.  As I’ve said before in speeches, the current status quo in aging is simply unsustainable: we must find ways for seniors to remain healthy and cut the governmental costs of caring for them as they grow as a percentage of the population.  As Japan Post CEO Taizo Nishimuro (who looks as if he’s a candidate for the new services — y0u go, guy!) said, the issue is “most acute in Japan — we need real solutions.”

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said her company will take on a 3-part mission:

“First, they’ll be working on ‘quality of life apps,’ both by building some themselves and by integrating others, all of which will be aimed at accessibility first. The key target will be iOS, since it’s a mobile-first strategy in keeping with our changed computing habits. Second, they’re working on developing additional accessibility features not yet available, and third they’re helping Japan Post with the service layer required to deliver this to the elderly.”

Sweet! — and it reminds me of the other recently announced IBM/Apple announcement, in that case with J & J, to build a robust support structure for Apple’s new open-source ResearchKit and HealthKit platform to democratize medical research.  The IoT ain’t nothin’ without collaboration, after all.

Cook, according to TechCrunch, put the initiative in a global context (not unlike his environmental initiatives, where, IMHO, he’s become THE leading corporate change agent regarding global warming):

“Tim Cook called the initiative ‘groundbreaking,’ saying that it is ‘not only important for Japan, but [also] has global implications. Together, the three of us and all the teams that work so diligently behind us will dramatically improve the lives of millions of people.’

“…. The Apple CEO talked about how the company aims to ‘help people that are marginalized in some way, and empower them to do the things everyone else can do.” He cited a UC Irvine study which details how remote monitoring and connection with loved ones via iPad help instill a sense of confidence and independence in seniors. He added that he believes what the companies are doing in Japan is also scalable around the world.”

It will be interesting to see exactly how the partnership addresses the challenge of creating those senior-friendly “quality of life” apps: as someone who’s on the front-lines of explaining even Apple’s intuitive devices to older customers, I can tell you that many seniors begin are really frightened by these technologies, and it will take a combination of great apps and calm, patient hand-holding to put them at ease.

As I enter my 7th decade, I’m pumped!