Feb 7, 2011

The real "Internet of Things"

Everytime I encounter the term "The Internet of Things", I feel a tinge of disappointment which arises from knowing what it means but concurrently hoping it meant something else. Something that is inherently implied in its name, at least to the uninitiated.

But first, here's what the "Internet of Things" is currently defined as:
"... the physical world itself is becoming a type of information system. In what’s called the Internet of Things, sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects—from roadways to pacemakers—are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol (IP) that connects the Internet. These networks churn out huge volumes of data that flow to computers for analysis. When objects can both sense the environment and communicate, they become tools for understanding complexity and responding to it swiftly. What’s revolutionary in all this is that these physical information systems are now beginning to be deployed, and some of them even work largely without human intervention.
Even being familiar with that prosaic truth doesn't stop me every time from thinking for a very brief second that the term could - or rightfully should - refer to a network where physical atomy things are moved around an Internet-like network.

For those of you who have also responded with the same anticipation-disappointment to the phrase, this post doesn't bring tidings of a real "Internet of Things." But it brings the next best thing to that: a description of technologies from the present - and even the past - that could possibly underpin a future, less disappointing, Internet of Things.

The idea, and the technology to make it happen, goes back to Victorian times:
There was a time, in many places, when letters and parcels could be put in capsules and sent through pipelines direct to people’s houses. The capsules were propelled by air and whizzed along tubes from sender to receiver. Pneumatic delivery, as it was known, was commonplace from about 1850 to 1950. The largest system was in Paris, where more than 400km of tubes were laid. Berlin and London had extensive pneumatic systems, too. After 1950, however, the networks gradually closed down, and today only Prague still clings to this Victorian technology.
If that wasn't fantastic enough, the idea has recently received an infusion of modern technology:
Pipenet, a system Dr Cotana patented in 2003 and has been developing since then, is based on a network of metal pipes about 60cm (two feet) in diameter. Instead of air pressure, it uses magnetic fields. These fields, generated by devices called linear synchronous motors, both levitate the capsules and propel them forward. The capsules are routed through the network by radio transponders incorporated within them. At each bifurcation of the pipe, the transponder communicates the capsule’s destination and the magnets pull it to the left or the right, as appropriate. Air pumps are involved, but their role is limited to creating a partial vacuum in the pipes in order to reduce resistance to the capsules’ movement. This way, Dr Cotana calculates, capsules carrying up to 50kg of goods could travel at up to 1,500kph—so you could be wearing a pair of jeans or taking photographs with a new camera only a couple of hours after placing your order.
Crucially (in my opinion), replacing centralised air compressors that produce the pneumatic push to localised magnetic levitation technology should enable the "pneumatic post network" idea of the past to transform from a "monologue of things" to a "dialogue of things" - giving it an upload option to the standard download feature. What we have here now is glimmer of the democracy of the Internet we know so well, albeit shackled firmly by the economy of real things.

Dr. Franco Cotana - referred to in the excerpt above - is an engineering physicist working at the University of Perugia in Italy. His team is exploring pilot projects in Italy and China. The emphasis, pragmatically, is on transportation of freight - the new technology reduces the cost of transportation to under $5 a mile. True, a fraction of the cost of traditional freight transport but, a real bummer for dreamers of a widely available "Internet of Things."

But that shouldn't prevent an unhindered view of the possibilities:
In 1900 Charles Emory Smith, then postmaster-general of the United States, wrote that by the end of the decade he expected the “extension of the pneumatic tube system to every house, thus insuring the immediate delivery of mail as soon as it arrives in the city”.
I am hoping the above technologies, accompanied by an adoption of open network protocols and a modular (packeted) approach to making things, may yet make what is currently a pipe dream, a dream pipe.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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