Machines have started talking to each other in India, and soon humans will start communicating with them
Pratap Vikram Singh | July 4, 2015
Technology has made life easy for all, be it a farmer or a corporate leader. Farmers in several states operate water pumps kept miles apart in the field through cell phones. A GSM-based controller fitted to water pumps helps farmer to instruct the pump through an IVRS call. The device comes with automatic power detection system, which helps farmer in making the most of the limited power supply. Bengaluru based firm Kisan Raja piloted this solution in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka in 2012 and is now offering its services to Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Globally, the connected sensors, or Internet of Things (IoT) as it is popularly called, is helping farmers in precision agriculture: ascertaining soil moisture, ensuring optimal irrigation and crop yield.
“If we [are able to] maximise crop yield [with using Internet of Things], we resolve a global problem,” says Joseph Alhadeff, chair of digital economy at US-India Business Council. He also holds the position of vice president, global public policy and chief privacy officer, Oracle. The Internet of Things has allowed remote control of devices in unimaginable ways. In health alone, there are several solution providers who are offering devices to diagnose heart, blood pressure and blood sugar measurement. Take the case of a Bengaluru-based startup, Cardiac Design Lab. It has made a device that captures the abnormality in the functioning of heart (electrocardiogram, ECG) and sends data to the cloud. The cloud server sends an alert to the doctor in the meantime. Here, the Cardiac Design Lab sells devices to hospitals who then handover the device to their patients. The lab charges the hospital on a per patient basis.
Another player in ECG devices is Cardea Research Lab. The company has come up with a locket-device that sends data related to abnormal ECG readings to a smartphone. The phone, having an application, converts that data into a simple report, which could be sent to a doctor. The device, when produced in scale, will cost around '3,000. These solutions, if proved effective, could help a villager or someone living in a remote area to get the ECG test done without having to travel all the way to the nearest town. There are also wearable devices which can detect diabetes. “India is home to 35 percent of entire diabetic population in the world. A Bengaluru-based startup is working on the prototype of a device that can measure blood sugar without intrusion. The device measures sugar level through sweat,” says MN Vidyashanker, president, Indian electronics and semiconductor association (IESA).
“It is interesting to note here that the solution for challenges in the agriculture, health or transport sector is coming from startups. The traditional software business has been dominated by the likes of Microsoft and Google. India is fortunate to have a good number of startups, including those in Internet of Things. Bengaluru itself has over a thousand startups working in the Internet of Things.”
A city, state or a country-wide implementation of IoT solutions will require capabilities in not just solution development, which is being done mostly by startups, but also in system integration, networking, device manufacturing, sensors and chips. The major IT players like TCS, Wipro and HCL are gearing up for this challenge and forging alliances and partnerships to become an end-to-end service provider in the Internet of Things. The government of India has already approved programmes including 100 smart cities, smart grid and vehicle tracking that will rely heavily on internet-connected sensors.
“As of now there are very few organisations that have the capability to deliver an IoT solution on its own,” says Anuj Bhalla, vice president and business head, global- system integration and maintenance services and products, GIS, Wipro Limited. The software company is tying up with Cisco, IBM and Huawei to offer end-to-end solution in projects involving IoT. Every Friday, Wipro screens and interacts with five startups in its Bengaluru office. Cisco, Intel, IBM, SAP and HCL, too, are engaging startups in some or the other manner. Cisco is screening startups for increasing their product portfolio. For example, it is tying up with a Bengaluru-based company BhanuSoft that provides enterprise software for connecting multiple wearable devices. The collaboration is still a work in progress and has not been made public. Intel and Honeywell are providing startups with their integrated circuits and sensors.
Seeing the lucrative business opportunity, telecom and IT expert Sumit Chaudhary left his position as CEO of Reliance Jio to start his own firm, Gaia Smart Cities. Gaia claims to be India’s first end-to-end solution provider of IoT. Gaia plans to lay down a non-GSM-based sensor network across the country. At present it is focusing on metering, industrial automation and tracking. The company is already in talks with the railways and the defence. Talking about the application of IoT in utilities, Chaudhary says, “The idea is to connect meters with a common network. The utility company will not be required to integrate these meters. Our system will calculate the bill and forward it to the company.” Second area is tracking applications. “You can track your car, kid and dog.” The ambulance can be sensed before the traffic junction and could be given green signal. Third area is industrial automation. “Here we integrate SCADA system with our network. If GSM fails, there is no other network to rely upon.”
To provide a congenial environment, department of telecommunications (DoT) and department of electronics and information technology (DeitY) have formulated policies on IoT [They both come under the ministry of communications and IT]. As of now none of the departments have an explanation why the two formulated separate policies on IoT. Experts however say given the nature of their jobs, device specifications and incubation centres will be looked after by DeitY and communications protocols and regulation will be overseen by DoT]. The policy states: “M2M (machine to machine) can bring substantial and tangible social economic benefits to consumers, businesses, citizens and governments.”
According to DeitY’s revised draft policy on IoT, India will have a $15 billion IoT market by 2020. The draft policy envisages increase in the connected devices from around 200 million to over 2.7 billion by 2020. Globally, the number of internet-connected devices (12.5 billion) surpassed the number of human beings (7 billion) on the planet in 2011, and by 2020, connected devices are expected to number between 26 to 50 billion. The prime minister’s ambitious smart cities mission alone presents a huge business opportunity. The information and communication technology (including IoT) component, as per a Nasscom report, will account for 10-15 percent of the total smart cities outlay. This translates into $30-40 billion business opportunity for the ICT industry.
The potential of machine to machine communications was discussed first in national telecom policy of 2012. The policy said, “To facilitate the role of new technologies in furthering public welfare and enhanced customer choices through affordable access and efficient service delivery. The emergence of new service formats such as machine to machine communications (e.g. remotely operated irrigation pumps, smart grid, etc.) represent tremendous opportunities, especially as their roll-out becomes more widespread.”
Tough road ahead
While the market opportunity is huge, interoperability between different sensor networks is crucial for IoT to succeed. Interoperability simply means that sensor-embedded devices deployed under one project should easily talk to devices laid in other projects. As of now there are no common protocol/standards that exist anywhere in the world. Globally the IoT is still in evolution stage; solutions, standards are still a work in progress. As a result, every company that is deploying connected sensors is doing in its own, proprietary way. Delhi and Mysuru are implementing vehicle tracking system in public transport buses and autos. The architecture and protocols are different, say experts involved in projects execution. A senior official working with DIMTS said, “The government policy should ensure common data interchange protocol, between vehicle to infrastructure and vehicle to vehicle.”
The telecom department, in its M2M roadmap, noted that the policy and regulatory challenges are enormous and involve both reshaping previous regulations and opening up avenues for imaginative new policies. “TSP’s are familiar in dealing with telecom regulators. But when it comes to IoT/ M2M they are out of their comfort zone, as there are multiple regulators and data authorities for health, energy, road and transportation services and so on,” the roadmap said.
When a device has to talk to a remote server or to cloud, the sensor placed in the device first communicates to the gateway (a router placed around the device in a home or neighbourhood network for example) from where it receives data packets and sends it back. The gateway then sends the packets to the server or the cloud. The connectivity between the device and the gateway is called the last mile network. This is one place where we need standardisation. Some examples of last mile network are Wi-Fi, Zigbee, Z-Wave and 6LoWPAN. Device specifications have to be designed accordingly. There is also a need for interoperability between software (what is referred as application layer).
The quality of service (QoS) of machine to machine communications also needs to be defined. In some cases the allocation and retention priority (ARP) which determines the priority that a device gets or maintains connectivity in the case of congestion in the network, could be lower while in others it could be higher. “For example, seismic sensors need to be able to warn against earthquake, even in the event that earthquake results in congestion in the network. Patients with a heart monitoring device would also probably like their devices to have a somewhat higher priority than other data traffic in the mass of mobile communication on new year’s eve,” the telecommunication department reasons in the roadmap. This task of setting QoS will be done by the telecom regulator TRAI.
Another major hurdle is lack of testing and certification facilities for IoT devices. The healthcare sector is flooded with wearable devices for measuring blood sugar, ECG, blood pressure, etc. There are also digital devices which are not connected with the internet – most of it come from China. The DoT, in its roadmap, said, “To achieve the objective of M2M products certification, the existing facilities of TEC (telecom equipment certification division within DoT) may be upgraded and fine-tuned to meet requirements. Also more facilities can be added in terms of additional conformity assessment bodies (CABs) and certification bodies (CB) as per the industry requirements.” A public-private partnership might be a good strategy for the government to set up labs on large scale.
Privacy and security
One of the major challenges will be to safeguard privacy of individuals and security of data. In a typical IoT setup, the data will be recorded by multiple players: M2M service provider, telecom service provider and devices. The roadmap document notes: “The internet of things M2M will enable creation of wealth of information covering various aspects of economy and society with its potential use for public welfare as well as giving rise to privacy concerns of individuals.” It also lays focus on use of genuine IMEIs in devices by M2M service provider. “Existing IMEIs guidelines for handset will be applicable in case of M2M devices as well,” says the document.
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