BARCELONA: The Internet of Things (IoT) is often described by technology companies as a huge potential benefit to organisations but sometimes it can be hard to turn the hyperbole into real-life examples.
Microsoft attempted to break down this barrier by showcasing several examples of real-world uses of IoT networks that companies have created using the firm's Azure IoT Suite, a set of cloud-based tools that allow the creation of IoT systems using software supported by Microsoft's cloud platform.
Steve Fox, senior director of Microsoft's worldwide Azure Apps and IoT practice, explained at Microsoft's Convergence 2015 conference in Barcelona that companies need to think about how the IoT can benefit their business rather than simply jump on the trend.
"We are going beyond the trend. The IoT a year ago or two ago was kind of a trend. Now we are seeing it in business applications. We are seeing real problems being solved," he said.
"Often what I see is customers wanting to engage with the IoT but it feels like an answer looking for a question, and that is the wrong way to approach this general area.
"It's been really interesting when I have strategy conversations with C-Level executives and we define what the IoT is and we figure out what the strategy is they want to execute and we really find they are not on the same page. We want to get it down to some simple scenarios."
Show and tell
First up in the showcase was Rockwell Automation, a company that provides automation and information systems for manufacturing and production in industrial situations such as the food, oil and gas, and mining sectors.
Rockwell set up an IoT platform for the oil and gas industry to collect data from a wide range of devices and assets across the supply chain, using Microsoft's visual analytics Power BI tool at its core.
The system collects data from pipes and machine parts on oil rigs and related machinery and feeds it back into the system based on the Azure cloud. The IoT tool uses machine learning, also offered by Microsoft, to produce predictive analytics models that assess and warn when a machine part is beginning to fail.
This allows engineers and maintenance staff to see any potential problems in the oil and gas supply chain and fix them before they escalate into full equipment failures.
The connectivity also enables remote troubleshooting in real time as the depth of the information from sensors fed back into the system allows companies to see exactly where a problem is, or will occur, and then use the cloud to push back actions to the problematic device even if it's an offshore submersible oil pump.
It can also follow the movement of oil and gas across a company's supply chain, ranging from the performance of pumps to the inventory of fuelling stations, which is then fed back as an electronic record into Microsoft's Dynamics software to allow that data to be stored, tracked and analysed.
Cities are becoming more connected with systems such as smart lighting and connected bins that allow alerts to be sent to a central control centre when they are faulty or getting full to provide a proactive rather than reactive service to citizens.
Microsoft unveiled a system that it helped German utilities company EnBW to set up that collects and manages data coming from sensors attached to lights in smart city projects.
The smart lights also provide wireless hotspots for citizens, and the IoT system can collect data from people logging onto the WiFi and feed it back into an analytics engine that can identify where people are moving and going to, allowing city authorities to carry out more data-driven people management.
The system can track the performance of the street lamps to spot any potential malfunctions before they occur, allowing predictive maintenance to be carried out, and can monitor the environment around the lamps to provide authorities with granular data on air pressure, humidity, temperature and pollution levels in specific areas of a city.
The authorities can then use this data to take certain actions, such as rerouting traffic if there is a lot of pollution in one area.
The third prominent example of a real-world IoT deployment was a system created by healthcare firm Dartmouth-Hitchcock called ImagineCare based on Microsoft's cloud-based Cortana Analytics suite.
Dartmouth-Hitchcock used the perceptual intelligence capabilities of Cortana Analytics to create an IoT system that collects and crunches data from mobile devices and wearables on a patient. It can track conversations on social media, and even ascertain a patient's mood through face recognition.
This data is fed into a central system and combined with a patient's clinical data to create a dashboard (above), underpinned by machine learning with the image recognition and big data analysis capabilities of Cortana Analytics. This provides a snapshot of the patient's current health and can be used with predictive models to see how their health is likely to improve or deteriorate based on current data.
For example, the system can predict the effect of a patient's rise in temperature or the effects of a rise in weight or blood pressure. This information is then provided in visual form for a healthcare professional to take actions such as adjusting medication or recommending exercise or diet regimes.
The clever part of ImagineCare is allowing healthcare organisations to deliver proactive care based on predictive models rather than waiting for a patient to complain of an ailment.
This allows better care to be delivered, and makes clinicians more efficient with their time and resources thereby cutting the cost of delivering services.
The system can be extended to predict how situations like an ambient temperature rise or a flu outbreak in an area could affect the health of patients, giving healthcare organisations the ability to act on data from disease control centres and other public services.
The systems showcased by Microsoft demonstrated how the IoT is more about applying big data analytics and models on top of the networked devices and apps, rather than simply connecting devices and systems.
It also hammered home the idea that that the IoT needs to be approached from a business-use perspective instead of just a technology rollout.
Fox ended the showcase by saying that companies should take this approach and use the tools on offer to get started with the IoT, noting that they do not need huge networks of devices to tap into its potential.
"In the context of the IoT, 'grow as you go' should be your mantra. We see that over and over. You will learn as you go and you will add additional elements as you go," he said.
More companies are beginning to become familiar with uses of the IoT such as MTR Crossrail, which is suing a combination of iPads, iPhones and Bluetooth beacons to connect staff to information they need to carry out their daily tasks.
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