Twenty-five years ago the idea that everybody everywhere would be interconnected through computers which allowed you to use, add, remove or exchange huge amounts of data seemed farcical. Computers were so new to the average person that any development seemed like a long way off.
Fast-forward to today: the internet is a known entity which is often used and little praised and yet it seems the great majority of people underestimate the power of further development. This development involves a transition from a purely software-based element to one which has the potential to actively interface with hardware devices throughout the home and beyond – this if often referred to as the ‘internet of things’. This isn’t a new phenomena – in 2008 the number of devices connected to the internet overtook the number of people on the planet and, by 2020, the number of web-connected devices is expected to be in the region of 50 billion.
Every device that is interfaced with the web must be secure from cyber attacks, prior to being connected; there cannot afford to be any mistakes.
The internet of things allows normal everyday items to be interconnected with computers, either feeding data back or receiving data from another system. For example a system could tell you the temperature inside your home (taking data from your house and sending via the web to you). You could use this data to turn your heating up or down (taking data from you to your home). These examples are becoming more and more prevalent with the larger of the utilities companies offering a similar service for a one-off fee or standing monthly charge. This kind of interfacing though is only the beginning.
In Engineering Design
The internet of things could transform the way in which we as engineers go through our design process. If altering an existing building, designers could monitor the building’s behaviour in real-time through secure online streams instead of having printed data handed over from a third party. This would massively influence early design decisions and could make the entire project more suited to the needs of the client.
The evolution of the ‘reasonably-priced’ 3d printer means that architectural models have the potential to be constructed at a significantly reduced cost. 3D design software fills the virtual piece of this puzzle, allowing engineers to design and analyse within the constraints of a computer – now that a model version can be built in the real world for a significantly reduced cost, designers can showcase their plans much easier. A design team in Leeds could model a skyscraper on a computer and have it generated by a 3D printer that is sat on the client’s desk in Hong Kong.
One of the riskiest elements of any construction project is the actual work that is carried out on site. Not only do the daily tasks effect the financial and time-based outcome of the project it’s also an incredibly dangerous place to work. Advances in technology could assist in reducing this risk. Systems that monitor a worker’s daily regime, how long they spend in different areas of the site or even how fast their heart is beating could help prevent major incidents on site. This is incredibly appealing to many in the construction industry, as it offers potential improvements in health and safety.
The internet of things is such an open-ended idea that almost anything post-construction has the potential to be interfaced – whether it’s a building management system, a heating system, a computer, surveillance equipment, or something as silly as keeping tabs on how many drinks are bought from a vending machine. It can all be monitored and interfaced further.
Equipment could be set up to inform staff members when it’s getting too hot, or a fan has cut out or a system is losing power. Right now these systems have been forced to interface through software/microcontroller units (PLC and SCADA) of some form other another to facilitate the need.
The best thing about all this is that we have the current infrastructure in place to facilitate these kind of developments. Using the IPv6 protocol, there are approximately 340282366920938463463374607431768211456 possible addresses (which means that many possible items can be connected). That’s equivalent to 100 addressed items for every atom on the face of the planet!
There are a couple of major issues though – first and foremost is security. Everyone knows that internet security is important, but imagine how important it would be if someone had the capability to turn on your gas cooker at home when you were out? This is a serious concern to many and is often voiced as a main reason why the internet of things may struggle to develop at a faster pace than at present. Every device that is interfaced with the web must be secure from cyber attacks, prior to being interfaced; there cannot afford to be any mistakes.
In truth, it’s difficult to say how long the internet of things will really start to advance the engineering sector – small changes in the industry will, over time, add up to much larger effects on the ground. For now though, the vast majority of technological possibilities remain firmly in the sci-fi films.