“Internet of Things has a large role to play in smart cities”


Shubhendu Parth | October 29, 2014

photo courtesy: Dr Kevin Curran

The department of electronics and information technology (DeitY) recently released the draft policy on Internet of Things (IoT, interconnection of uniquely identifiable embedded devices). To understand the technology better, Shubhendu Parth speaks to Dr Kevin Curran on how IoT can impact governance. Curran, who is known for his work on location positioning within indoor environments, pervasive computing and internet security, also discussed IoT’s role in connected smart cities and threats associated with machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. Excerpts from the email interview:

Corporate world has found Internet of Things (IoT) useful to drive the business and customer service initiatives. Do you think IoT can help governments?
The IoT can be used in practically all scenarios for public services by governments. For instance, protecting the environment will require multifaceted solutions, but the IoT can uniquely help address problems of clean water, air pollution, landfill waste, and deforestation. Sensor-enabled devices can help monitor the environmental impact of cities, collect details about sewers, air quality, and garbage. Such devices can also help monitor woods, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Many environmental trends are so complex, that they are difficult to conceptualise. Collecting data is the first step towards understanding and ultimately reducing the environmental impact of human activity and that is where IoT has an important role to play.

Can you elaborate on it, in terms of how IoT is being used globally?

There are plenty of examples. For instance, WaterBee is a smart irrigation system that collects data on soil content and other environmental factors from a network of wireless sensors to reduce water waste. The system analyses the data it collects to selectively water different plots of land based on need. WaterBee can be used for a variety of commercial applications, including on farms, vineyards, and golf courses. Smart irrigation systems save energy, water, and money. Using a prototype, 14 sites in Europe were able to reduce their water usage on average by 40 percent.

Another example is Z-Trap which helps prevent crop damage by using pheromones to trap insects and then compile data on the number of different types of insects in the trap. Z-Trap wirelessly transmits the data, including its GPS coordinates, allowing farmers to view a map of the types of insects that have been detected.

The technology has also been put to good use in protecting the woods. Invisible Tracck is a small device that can be covertly placed in trees in protected forest areas to help prevent illegal logging. The devices, which are smaller than a deck of cards, alert authorities when illegally harvested trees pass within range of a mobile network.

India has announced it will develop over 100 smart cities and these will have technology as a backbone. Do you think IoT has a role to play in management of cities?
The IoT has a large role to play in future smart cities. For instance, Air Quality Eggs can be found across America, Western Europe and East Asia, and may eventually play a role in developing countries with the most rapid urban population growth and highest rates of pollution. This is a community-led air quality sensing network that allows anyone to collect very high resolution readings of NO2 and CO concentrations outside of their home. These two gases are the most indicative elements related to urban air pollution that are sense-able by inexpensive, DIY sensors.

Another example is HiKoB road sensors which are compact, low-power, wireless sensors that can be embedded into the roadway to measure variables such as temperature, humidity, and traffic volume. The sensor data is sent over a wireless network to a server for processing and analysis. This information allows road crews to prioritise maintenance during harsh weather conditions, which are responsible for almost a quarter of vehicular accidents. The system can also alert drivers of potential hazards.

One of my favourite examples of the IoT is BigBelly which is a solar-powered trash receptacle and trash compactor that alerts sanitation crews when it is full. Boston University has reduced its pickup from an average of 14 to 1.6 times a week. They save time and energy since its collectors are using less garbage bags and producing less CO2 during trash pickup.

Of course, there are numerous other examples for infrastructure such as wireless bridge sensors which can help reduce this risk by monitoring all aspects of a bridge’s health, such as vibration, pressure, humidity, and temperature. In fact, the US geological survey advanced national seismic system uses accelerometers and real-time data analysis to monitor the structural health of buildings in earthquake prone regions. Sensors detect the degree of the building’s movement, the speed that seismic waves travel through the building, and how the frame of the building changes.

So how will system managements and grids of future look like?
We, at IEEE, expect to see much more real-time integration between national intelligent transport infrastructures and systems such as satellite navigation in cars, traffic signal control systems, parking information, weather report, bridge de-icing system and container management system. We also expect integration of variable message signs, automatic number plate recognition or speed cameras to monitor applications, such as security CCTV systems and similar other systems like end of road-side construction and traffic flow cones.

In future we can expect indestructible inbuilt road sensors that are embedded in the road and ‘turned on’ during preventive road construction maintenance or in emergencies alerting each vehicle to the need to reduce speed or halt. Ultimately, we can expect the road beneath us to become more communicative.

Glimpses of future intelligent infrastructures can be seen at the moment in initiatives such as the one in Birmingham city, the UK, where IBM is helping to analyse big data to help understand parking patterns in order to better manage congestion. They had deployed ultra-low-power wireless sensors in roads and offered an accompanying app for drivers to get real-time availability and prices for parking. Common sources to manage traffic included road sensors, video cameras and GPS updates from public transport. In Ireland, Dublin city council has rolled out a big-data-led traffic management project where traffic controllers use the data from various sensors to overlay real-time locations of Dublin's buses on a digital map. The aim is to quickly visualise potential problems in the bus network before it spreads to other routes.

Another key part of future intelligent transport infrastructures will be support for charging stations especially as they move from being public led to private push. This is crucial as currently many electric-vehicle charging stations are part of network run by service operators. However, quite often users can only charge at points that are part of their network and this lack of roaming between networks is inhibiting electric vehicle sales.

What about the role of IoT in improving the infrastructure as a whole?

Wireless sensor networks are a core aspect of future smart roads. Monitoring bridges is one of the more successful applications of smart roads to date. In Greece, the 3-km Charilaos Trikoupis bridge has sensors and shortly after opening they detected abnormal vibrations in the cables leading to engineers installing additional weight to dampen the cables. Wireless sensors can also be used to monitor the state of road surfaces such as detecting the number of potholes in a road. Boston taxis were used in one such study.

Sensor networks are also being deployed in tunnels to monitor air flow, visibility, and a range of gases (CO, CO2, NO2, O2, SH2 and PM-10). Most are wired but moving to a wireless sensor network deployment could increase safety, save money and speed up installation times. Other sensor networks measure temperature, humidity and similar parameters on highways to qualify them as ‘smart roads’. This is important as weather conditions affect road safety. Smart roads could, in fact, take advantage of solar energy for power, clearing streets of ice and snow by melting it away. Also, temperature-responsive dynamic paint can be used to make ice crystals visible to drivers when cold weather makes road surfaces slippery. Finally, wireless sensors are being used to monitor water levels on viaducts, create noise maps in roads close to cities and of course monitor traffic congestion.

Wireless sensor network (WSN) combined with cameras is becoming a common instrument to detect traffic flows, speed, and the continued occupation of the road. Sometimes they are combined with other sensors such as magnetometer or power sensors, for traffic detection. The advantages of WSNs is that they can monitor and evaluate roads automatically and continuously, with little human effort and work 24/7 even with poor weather conditions, when there is fog or presence of dust in the air. They require very low power and are very cost effective.

And all this will have a real-time impact?
Yes. In general, the roll-out of a multitude of wireless sensors in roads and in vehicles will allow the public to do accurate tracking of public transport. Other early initiatives have links sensors, vehicles and stop lights/signs to control flow. Popular wireless sensor networks include accelerometers, strain gauges, anemometers, weigh-in-motion devices and temperature sensors. The powerful aspect to such systems is that you can influence the traffic in real-time as opposed to the historical data analysis approach where retrospective decisions were the norm. In fact, the value of data collected in many instances is reduced dramatically even minutes after the fact.

Regarding traffic lights, again sensors can help here. The most common traffic signalling system worldwide is the timer-based system. This involves a predefined time setting for each road at an intersection. It works OK for light traffic but to cater to busier incoming lanes, a dynamic traffic adaptive system is proven to work much better. These systems therefore rely on a variety of sensors to determine which routes require greater priority and ultimately right of way to speed traffic flows.

Does that also mean there will be communication between the on-board and on-road devices?

Cars are beginning to communicate with the grid, the cloud and other vehicles. It will not be long until cars by default will likely keep an activity log for service and debugging. The crucial components of future will be the mobile networks, ad hoc (car to car) networks, vehicles to/from road sensors and satellite communications. We can expect a significant portion of the internet to be consumed by vehicle communications. In fact, machine to machine (M2M) or car to car (C2C) communication will play a large role in the future. For instance, if a crash happens, on-board M2M/C2C technology will automatically send vital details to the emergency services such as time of collision, GPS location, vehicle description, vehicle licence number and registered owner. This might save crucial moments in life-threatening situations. A commercial example of this is from OnStar which provides a variety of in-vehicle technologies for communications, navigation, remote diagnostics, and safety. OnStar’s automatic crash response system uses sensors to detect a crash and then automatically alert emergency responders. 

The Toyota Collaborative Safety Research Center is taking this a step further to use crash data to predict the type and severity of injuries that occupants in a crash likely sustained. Automatically collecting and sending this information means that appropriate help can arrive sooner, potentially saving lives. M2M or C2C can also lead to pertinent information being sent to keep drivers informed with up-to-the-moment knowledge, so that they are better prepared to make correct driving decisions. M2M technology can also be used in sensors that communicate trip time, intelligent parking meters that alert drivers to vacant parking spots and even fleet management systems that handle logistics, scheduling and routine vehicle maintenance. It will also allow for on-board diagnostic information to be sent to a dealership or car manufacturer to speed up fault diagnosis and can also help companies reduce fuel costs. For instance, a fleet with feedback from vehicle gauges can provide more accurate information about the level inside of all remote tanks so they can optimise the fill-up of tanks.

In the future, it is entirely possible that all vehicles have network connectivity. This will allow them to receive firmware and software updates and automatically synchronise data. It is only a small step for much of the telemetry data associated with that vehicle to also be uploaded so as to allow a city to optimise traffic management.

But isn’t that a matter of concern? Such a level of data sharing has all the potential for privacy abuses.

Invasion of privacy is one real concern as the widespread adoption of smart devices means that more data is being collected on people than before, and any breaches in security will have a knock-on effect on privacy. The IoT will simply lead to an increased collection of information on individuals. For instance, collecting information relating to an individual, that individual may become more easily identifiable. There is a real possibility that an individual’s habits, location, interests and other personal information may be easily tracked. There are sophisticated data mining software in use which can reveal incredible accurate information on previously ‘anonymous’ data. This also leads to concerns relating to identity thief. When it comes to privacy, there may be of course low risk exposure of data such as the IoT tracking our food and drink purchases but we must also be aware that it could expose more damaging details such as religion.

We may also see a mission creep, in that much of the data about individuals could be re-purposed. A lot of these deployments will be commercial and data collected may be sold onwards to third parties in ways not even initially thought of. There is of course no agreed protocol for access to public data when it comes to law enforcement authorities or other intelligence agencies. This will be an interesting space to watch in the days ahead.

What about the security threat? Many of these inter-connected devices may end up becoming part of the ‘silent attack network’.
A fundamental problem with the IoT is the increased exposure to remote hacks as it opens up many privacy implications. The sheer scale of deployment of these limited-function embedded devices in households and public areas can lead to unique attacks. There is also the worry of the domino effect where if one device becomes ‘owned’, it can easily spread to the remainder of the cluster. If something like a smart stereo or coffee maker is hacked into it can be trickier to tell as unlike in a laptop or a smartphone these devices often have no visual display. So, technically if they are taking part in an attack they might not show any signs of trouble.

This certainly is a concern as there is evidence that many IoT roll-outs have neglected the end-to-end security aspect. We know that a core reason for this is that many of the embedded devices do not simply have enough computing power to implement all the relevant security layers and functionality necessary. There is then the actual heterogeneity of devices and the lack of industry or de facto standards for connecting the IoT.

One of the successes of the IoT to date has been the introduction of ‘smart meters’. These are network connected meters which ‘broadcast’ our power usage to the power company. There is, however, a real possibility that unscrupulous individuals can commit a crime by manipulating the data captured by the meter. A hacker, for instance, could compromise a smart meter to find out about a home owner’s peaks of use to learn when they are likely to be out. On a larger scale, however, there is a threat whereby smart meters which are connected to smart grids could be attacked leading to complete failure of the system. In fact, it is an ideal attack from rogue nations or terrorist organisation as once the electricity if cut-off then pretty much every aspect of life in that region is affected.

In the IoT, the installation of smart meters controlled from a single head-end is one of the most critical deployments to be properly designed in a secure manner. If an attacker was to compromise such a critical infrastructure and send commands to multiple meters to stop or modify the charging, then the public backlash will be significant. It is serious because people can simply die when power gets cut off. This is not a threat scenario dreamed up by futurists. We actually know that the Chinese authorities have done extensive reconnaissance of Western energy networks so it is a real possibility that a nation state might launch such an attack during a time of international tension. Of course, indigenous terrorist groups can also launch similar attacks. Attacks can also be conducted in ransom like manners as well.

So how can we deal with this?
Manufacturers of devices that will contribute to the IoT need to consider the correct forms of cryptographic algorithms and modes needed for IoT devices. There is an international ISO/IEC 29192 standard which was devised to implement lightweight cryptography on constrained devices. There was a need for this as many IoT devices have a limited memory size, limited battery life along with restricted processors. Traditional ‘heavy’ cryptography is difficult to deploy on a typical sensor hence the deployment of many insecure IoT devices.

One of the major inhibitors is the lack of trust and collaboration between major manufacturers. For example, Ford, General Motors, Toyota, BMW and all the other leaders are part of the Vehicle Infrastructure Integration Consortium which is striving to deploy the infrastructure of tomorrow. However, in reality they all go back to their workshops and continue to produce proprietary protocols and systems.

What is IEEE doing on this front? Can you talk about the major achievements?
The IEEE is the standards body behind the universal wireless standards such as WiFi (IEEE 802.11), Bluetooth (IEEE 802.15), Zigbee and hundreds more that underpin the communications of the IoT. IEEE’s continued innovation in this area has helped unveil lower power, robust, higher bandwidth protocols for transmitting data. For instance, the recent IEEE 802.11ac can ship data at rates up to 7 Gbps. We also continue to fund and host conferences devoted to progressing the IoT and issues related to it, including the security and privacy concerns.

This interview appeared in the November 1-15, 2014 issue




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