Imagine a refrigerator that tells you when the compressor is about to quit, giving you a chance to save your perishables before you leave on that 10-day vacation; or a sensor that lets maintenance crews know when a pothole has opened up so it can be filled before it becomes an abyss; or a vermin trap that lets city sanitation officials know when it has captured a rat.
Thanks to the so-called internet of things, all that and more is on the way and more economically than was possible in the past.
“There are infinite applications,” said Alex Khorram, general manager for machineQ, Comcast’s effort to leverage the latest in sensor, network and software technology to gather, transmit and create digital data from the physical world. “The service is in its infancy. We’re in the first inning across the board.”
Think of it as putting a digital skin on the physical world. Using a low-power wide area network—a telecommunications network designed to transmit small amounts of data over a broad area, using less power than would be needed for business or consumer applications—cuts the cost of gathering data and transmitting it in settings that require long-term rather than immediate analysis.
“You’ve heard the term ‘smart cities.’ Every city in the world is trying to become smarter,” he said.
And Philadelphia is among them, recognizing the benefits and working on smart city projects that will deploy smart water meters, save energy through automated building systems and develop smart street lights, among other innovations, said Ellen Hwang, program manager for Innovation Management for the city.
The city is hosting a Smart Cities readiness workshop Oct. 12, which will bring 200 regional leaders together to come up with ideas for using this developing technology.
“What we want to do is make sure we’re thinking about how we can adopt tech moving forward and how we can serve as a guide,” Hwang said. “We want to make sure we’re not a barrier. We want to be a leader and a guide for how people can deploy successful tech projects that are interoperable. We don’t want to be stuck with technologies that are proprietary and closed data in the way we have in the past.”
The workshop is funded by a Smart Cities Council Readiness Challenge Grant, awarded to Philadelphia and four other cities in February. The four-year-old Smart Cities Council, an international coalition of research institutes and other agencies, selected five cities from 130 applicants for the grant.
In June, Comcast sponsored the machineQ Smart City Hackathon, which saw 17 teams competing to come up with solutions for specific problems—like outdoor lighting, pedestrian safety and parking efficiency—using sensors and the internet of things.
“We’re trying to drive awareness of this new tech,” said Bryan Witkowski, machineQ’s product strategy lead. “We wanted to put the tools into the hands of the development community. The hackathon was a mechanism to get people excited and give them the tools to independently develop and integrate technology.”
Todd Zielinski, senior director of electrical engineering for the Bresslergroup, which develops digital solutions—both hardware and software—for clients, said utilities particularly could benefit from the technology behind the internet of things.
“Theoretically, things like trash,” he said. “You can stick a $5 sensor on a trash can. You don’t have to drive the trash truck to every house, only Dumpsters that need it. This saves time, traffic and money. The same thing goes for a lot of networks in general. You can monitor gas leaks, water pressure problems—a lot of devices can now get information and make things more efficient and better used without spending time or money.”
What makes a low-power wide-area network valuable is that it can extract information under harsh circumstances and over multiple frequencies, increasing the chances data will get through—all with very little power required, Zielinski said.
Because the transmission rates are so slow, they don’t drain the batteries on sensors rapidly, meaning equipment can transmit for years instead of months, turning itself off when it doesn’t need to transmit and reducing the manpower it takes to keep it running.
“You can install equipment that can communicate over 10 miles for five years on a watch battery. Stick it inside and I have all of this great data and can help out my customers,” he said.
As machineQ’s Khorram explains it, traditional cellular Wi-Fi would be overkill—and cost-prohibitive—for the sorts of applications the internet of things requires. But low-power wide-area networks suddenly make gathering data a viable and valuable option.
Khorram cited a University of Pennsylvania student startup that developed a sensor to monitor the integrity of bridges, tracking vibration, concrete pH levels and other factors that play into the structural integrity.
“They built a bridge-monitoring solution—a sensor and web service that can work with Comcast. Now they install these sensors in the field and every 10 to 20 minutes that information can now be sent to the cloud. It even works through concrete because of the propagation characteristics.
“It solves the question of how to put a digital skin on the physical world. Before, that wasn’t possible.”
Low-power wide-area networks, also known as LoRaWAN or LoRa, can be used in such areas as asset-heavy infrastructure like big buildings, pipelines to stem leaks, and street and indoor lighting, as well as geolocation of assets (so construction equipment doesn’t go missing from a site, for example), or soil moisture to reduce the amount of water being used for irrigation in agriculture or on golf courses.
“LoRaWAN solves communications issues for devices that generally are not attached to power sources in the field. It’s set and forget,” Khorram said.
“Compared to traditional LTE [the 4G mobile communications standard], it’s revolutionary. We couldn’t have done it in the past. LTE chipsets cost five to seven times [more than LoRaWAN chipsets].”
Zielinski noted since the technology is open source, companies can create their own networks. Zielinski sees it taking off the same way internet use developed.
“In the beginning there were a couple of guys like me. Then came AOL and CompuServe and everyone wanted to be on,” Zielinski said. “That’s where we are right now with IoT. The end-user will be a lot more interested in the applications. IoT for home automation will mean pressing a button to lock your doors. Your refrigerator will be able to tell you when the compressor is about to fail. You’ll know for lifespan of a product whether there’s a service issue.”