Exploiting full potential of iBeacons for Internet of Things

One of the most exciting aspects of the Internet of Things is seeing how, when more people are exposed to one of its technologies, they find uses for it that the inventors might not have visualized.  I give you … the iBeacon.

The Apple protocol (again, my obligatory disclaimer that I work part-time at an Apple Store, but have no inside information or any obligation to hype their tech) is used in Bluetooth low-energy transmitters (“beacons”) that broadcast their location to nearby devices so they can perform actions such as social-media check-ins or push notifications while near the beacon.  They’re most frequently used in marketing to offer targeted bargains, and primarily have been used by the biggest retailers and sites such as major-league ballparks, but, as you’ll see, not always.

At the Re-Work Internet of Things Summit I met two young entrepreneurs, Justin Mann and Ben Smith  of Beacons in Space, a Boston startup that would allow new apps to leverage existing installed iBeacons — typically installed by large retailers and closed to others —  instead of having to add more beacons in a given space. This would be done through a subscription model with a simple API on top of a beacon rental marketplace. It would allow smaller developers can scale their developments and projects without having to invest in a redundant iBeacon array.

But I was particularly interested in how some clever developers are applying iBeacons outside retail settings.

One is at the Zoom Torino Biopark in Cumiana, Italy. iBeacons around the zoo trigger an app including an interactive map that helps visitors move around the park by giving their exact location and showing where other attractions are located.

“As visitors discover the six different habitat environments of the park, they will be able to unlock specific details, facts and suggestions throughout their journey thanks to hidden Bluetooth transmitting beacons, which trigger relevant content on a visitor’s smartphone based on their location.

“Users will also benefit from alerts on their mobile device informing them of special events during their visit, like meeting animals or presentations. By engaging with the app, visiting certain locations within the park and answering quiz questions, visitors can also earn promotional items and discount coupons for use within the park.”

installing iBeacon on Bucharest trolley to guide visually-impaired

Best of all,  Romania is using them in a very clever system, The Smart Public Transport (SPT) solution, to give visually-impaired riders audio clues through their smartphone about Bucharest’s bus system, a joint project of the Smart Public Transport project and Romania’s RATB trolley buses. Onyx Beacon, a Romanian company, is installing 500 Beacons on the city’s most heavily used public transportation vehicles (the project, incidentally, was funded by Vodafone under its “Mobile for Good” program, encouraging use of technology for social programs and to solve specific problems of those with special personal needs).

All of these projects show the utility — provided there are privacy and security provisions built in, and the systems are opt-in, of iBeacons for giving hyper-localized information and offers. If the Beacons in Space concept takes off, to eliminate the need to deploy more iBeacons for every new app, the concept might really become an important part of the IoT, whether for retail or civic uses.

Incredible example of rethinking “things” with Internet of Things

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the epitome of the IoT-enabled product: the trash can!

My reader statistics do not indicate this blog has a heavy readership among trash cans, but let me apologize in advance to them for what I’m about to write: it’s not personal, just factual.

I’m sorry, but you municipal trash cans are pathetic!

Dented. Chipping paint. Trash overflowing. Smelly. Pests (ever seen any of those prize city rats? Big!!!) Sometime even knocked over. And, worst of all, you are so…. DUMB. You just sit there and don’t do anything.

BigBelly trash compactor and recycling center

But that was then, and this is now.

I have seen the future of trash cans, and, equally important, perhaps the best example I’ve seen of how smart designers and company strategists can –and must — totally rethink products’ design and how they are used because of the Internet of Things! 

At last week’s Re-Work Internet of Things Summit there were many exciting new IoT examples (I’ll blog others in coming weeks) but perhaps the one that got more people talking was the BigBelly trash compactor & recycling system, high-tech successor to the lowly trash can.

The company’s motto is that they are “transforming waste management practices and contributing to the Smart Cities of tomorrow.” Indeed!

I was first attracted to the BigBelly systems because of my alternative energy and environmental passions: they featured PV-powered trash compactors, which can quintuple the amount a trash container can hold, eliminating overflowing containers and the need to send trucks to empty them as frequently. Because the containers are closed, there’s no more ugly banana peels and McDonald’s wrappers assaulting your delicate eyes — or noses! Equally important, each is paired with a recycling container, which are almost never seen on city streets, dramatically reducing the amount of recyclables that go into regular trash simply because no recycling containers are accessible downtown.  These features alone would be a noteworthy advance compared to conventional trash cans.

But BigBelly wasn’t content to just improve the efficiency of trash and recyclable collection: they decided to make the containers smart.

The company worked with Digi to add wireless communications to the bins. This is a critical part of BigBelly’s broader significance: when the IoT first started to creep into corporate consciousness, of course designers thought about smart versions of high-value products such as cars, but lowly trash cans? That deserves real praise, because they fundamentally re-examined not only the product as it existed, but also realized that an IoT-based version that could also communicate real-time data would become much more versatile and much more valuable.

Here’s what has resulted so far (and I suspect that as the BigBellys are more widely deployed and both city administrators and others become aware of their increased functionality, other features will be added: I see them as “Smart City Hubs!”):

  • heatmap of trash generation in Lower Manhattan using real-time data from BigBellys and CLEAN dashboard

    instead of traditional pickup routes and schedules that were probably based on sheer proximity (or, as BigBelly puts it a little more colorfully, “muscle memory and gut instincts”), they now offer a real-time way to monitor actual waste generation, through the “CLEAN Management Console,” which allows DPW personnel to monitor and evaluate bins’ fullness, trends and historical analysis, for perspective. Collections can now be dynamic and driven by current needs, not historical patterns.

  • For those cities that opt for it, the company offers a Managed Services option where it does the analysis and management of the devices — not unlike the way jet turbine manufacturers now offer their customers value-added data that allows them to optimize performance — and generates new revenue streams for the manufacturers.
  • You may remember that I blogged a while ago about the “Collective Blindness” analogy: that, until the IoT, we humans simply couldn’t visualize much about the inner workings of the material world, so we were forced to do klugy work-arounds.  That’s not, strictly speaking, the case here, since trash in a conventional can is obviously visible, but the actual volume of trash was certainly invisible to those at headquarters. Now they can see — and really manage it.
  •  They can dramatically increase recycling programs’ participation rate and efficiency. As BigBelly says, the system provides “intelligent infrastructure to support ongoing operations and free up staffing and resources to support new and expanded recycling programs. Monitoring each separate stream volumes, days to fullness, and other activities in CLEAN enables you to make changes where needed to create a more effective public recycling program. Leverage the stations’ valuable sidewalk real estate to add messaging of encouraging words to change your users’ recycling behaviors.”Philadelphia is perhaps the best example of how effective the system can be. The city bought 210 of the recycling containers in 2009. On average, each collected 225 pounds of recyclables monthly, resulting in 23.5 tons of material diverted from landfills. Philly gets $50 per ton from the recycling — and avoiding $63 in landfill tipping fees, with a total benefit to the city of $113 per ton, or $2599 per month.

Here’s where it really gets neat, in my estimation.

Because the BigBellys are connected in real time, the devices can serve a number of real-time communication functions as well (enabled by an open API and an emphasis by BigBelly on finding collaborative uses). That includes making them hubs for a “mesh network” municipal wi-fi system (which, by the way, means that your local trash container/communications hub could actually save your life in a disaster or terror attack, when stationary networks may be disrupted, as I explained years ago in this YouTube video).

The list of benefits goes on (BigBelly lists all of them, right down to “Happy Cities,” on its web site). Trust me: if my premise is right that we can’t predict all of the benefits of the IoT at this point because we simply aren’t accustomed to thinking expansively about all the ways connected devices can be used, there will be more!

So here’s my take-away from the BigBelly:

If something as humble and ubiquitous as a municipal trashcan can  be transformed into a waste-reduction, recycling collection, municipal communication hub, then to fully exploit the Internet of Things’ full potential, we need to take a new, creative look at every material thing we interact with, no longer making assumptions about its limited role, and instead looking at it creatively as part of an interconnected network whose utility grows the more things (and people!) it’s connected with!

Let me know your ideas on how to capitalize on this new world of possibilities!

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!