11 IoT Applications to Look for This Year and Beyond

“In the next century, planet earth will don an electronic skin. It will use the Internet as a scaffold to support and transmit its sensations.” So wrote Neil Gross in “21 Ideas for the 21st Century,” a Business Week article series published way back in 1999. Gross was describing the Internet of Things (IoT), the global network of Internet-connected sensors and devices that infuse reactive (“dumb”) systems with something approaching intelligence—or, at least, monitoring and reporting capabilities that invite proactive human responses.

Gross went on: “[The skin] consists of millions of embedded electronic measuring devices: thermostats, pressure gauges, pollution detectors, cameras, microphones, glucose sensors, EKGs, electroencephalographs. These will probe and monitor cities and endangered species, the atmosphere, our ships, highways and fleets of trucks, our conversations, our bodies—even our dreams.”

When Gross wrote those words, connected sensors weren’t a total novelty. For years, they’d facilitated machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, mostly in dangerous industrial environments where human monitoring wasn’t advisable, and in dynamic utility applications, such as power grid and municipal water management, where it simply wasn’t possible. However, this first generation of connected devices largely relied on either closed wireless networks (intranets) or early cellular networks for communication, and often used specialized programming languages incompatible with consumer electronics. Far from forming a globe-spanning, quasi-organic skin, these sensor networks functioned, at best, as isolated cells in a digital dead zone.

Today, IoT is far more pervasive. In late 2015, Gartner predicted that 6.4 billion connected “things” – sensors and other devices – would be in use worldwide in 2016, supporting $235 billion in economic activity. By 2020, Gartner projected 20.8 billion connected things – a geometric rate of increase from the present.

It’s worth acknowledging that IoT took off more slowly than many predicted. In 1999, Gross predicted that there would be “trillions” of connected devices in use by 2010. However, given the expected rate of growth and the ever-expanding range of IoT applications, it’s hard to argue that the time of the Internet of Things hasn’t come. Auto dealers are selling Internet-connected automobiles of the future right now. “Smart” thermostats are increasingly cost-competitive. Next-generation industrial sensors integrate seamlessly with consumer-grade software platforms. Gross’s digital skin is finally taking shape.

How will that skin look? The following IoT applications offer some clues. Many have already been commercialized and rolled out, and are gaining favor with businesses and consumers right now. Others are likely to take root in the years to come. All are potential game-changers.

Infrastructure and Urban Design

Smart Roads and Bridges

In August 2007, a traffic-choked interstate highway bridge collapsed near downtown Minneapolis, killing 13 and injuring 145. Investigators blamed the failure on a combination of factors, including poorly designed steel gusset plates which were attached decades earlier. These fell off the bridge during a prior construction project, and unusually hot weather weakened the bridge’s remaining structural elements.

The gusset plate issue wasn’t discovered until after the fact. Had the bridge been outfitted with connected sensors that could detect changes in its weight or composition, it is possible – perhaps likely – that the tragedy would have been prevented.

The Minneapolis bridge was by no means an outlier. The American Society of Civil Engineers‘ most recent Report Card for America’s Infrastructure assigned “D” and “C+” grades, respectively, to America’s roads and bridges. As connected sensors proliferate throughout the country’s highway and bridge network, transportation authorities’ visibility into potential issues is sure to improve dramatically. In addition to preventing out-and-out tragedies, that visibility should enable authorities to target their limited resources more efficiently – fixing issues before they become dangerous to drivers or overly costly and disruptive to repair.

Smart Street Lighting

Though modern streetlights are more efficient than ever before, they still consume a great deal of energy. That’s a problem for eco-conscious residents and cash-strapped city governments alike. According to TechCrunch, street lighting can account for up to 40% of municipalities’ electric bills.

Smart street lights use Internet-connected sensors and cameras to monitor weather conditions, street traffic, parking patterns, and other aspects of the local environment. Over time, they analyze the data they’ve collected, building predictive models that tell them when to turn on and when to power down. GE is currently working on a prototype system that can reduce the power consumption of streetlights by more than 50% without adversely impacting street life or public safety.

Parking Optimization

Parking is an important source of revenue for many municipalities, but parking spaces on streets and city-owned lots often sit vacant for large chunks of the day. Parking optimization systems such as Streetline’s ParkSight 2.0 use connected sensors to provide a wash of parking data, including real-time vacancy rates.

Users (generally municipal employees) analyze this data and react accordingly – for instance, by raising rates at busy times or locations, and by quickly identifying and ticketing parking violators. They can also use this data to alert drivers to vacant spaces through a custom-built smartphone app or push notifications, empowering them to drive directly to the right place rather than having to circle aimlessly in search of an open space.

These systems are becoming ever more sophisticated. Over time, app integrations are likely to improve, demand-based pricing (automatic, real-time parking rate fluctuations tied to volume) is likely to become more prevalent, and parking violations are likely to be issued automatically, perhaps using contactless payment systems.

Smart Sanitation

Early-stage “smart” public sanitation systems have already appeared in some cities. For instance, the Bigbelly smart waste and recycling system uses connected sensors and a customized backend platform to provide sanitation employees with real-time information about the contents and fullness of each receptacle in the network. Rather than send workers around to every city trash can, every day, decision-makers use this data to allocate resources more efficiently – reducing labor, fuel, and time costs.

Smart Grid and Demand Management

Utility companies have used remote sensors to collect consumption data since the late 1970s, mostly for after-the-fact meter reading purposes. Today, more powerful, capable sensors facilitate real-time monitoring and analysis at the appliance level, enabling electric utilities to see exactly how much power customers are using at any given time, and which systems or appliances account for that use.

Using complementary software systems and controls, utilities can then adjust the overall power load, smoothing out short-term fluctuations in demand. Power Over Time makes water heater, air conditioner, and electric vehicle charger controls that allow utilities to, for instance, temporarily turn down their customers’ air conditioning units on hot days, or turn on their water heaters at night, when power is cheaper, demand is lower, and renewable sources – particularly wind – account for a higher share of the generation mix. This reduces utilities’ costs and limits stress on the power grid, indirectly saving customers money.

Public Safety

Avalanche and Landslide Monitoring

Every year, avalanches and landslides kill hundreds of skiers, climbers, and civilians going about their everyday business. Avalanche and landslide monitors are increasingly prevalent in heavily trafficked mountain locales, such as groomed ski areas and mines. They collect data about snow depth and stability, soil moisture and composition, wind, temperature, and more, creating predictive models about when and where slides are likely to occur.

However, due to the vast surface area in play, monitors are far less common in low-traffic, high-risk areas, such as backcountry ski locales and high mountain environments frequented by professional climbers. As sensor costs decrease and predictive models improve, entire mountain ranges could one day sprout Gross’s “skin” – vastly improving the speed and effectiveness of public safety campaigns and rescues alike.

Pipeline Monitoring and Safety

Oil and gas pipelines can stretch for hundreds or thousands of miles, rendering direct, real-time human monitoring impractical. To compensate, pipeline managers place IoT sensors at regular intervals. These sensors collect a wealth of environmental and structural data, alerting human caretakers whenever a reading falls outside an acceptable range – for instance, a drop in pressure or spike in temperature. In very remote areas without reliable outside connections, an Intel-made system uses drones to collect sensor data and then travel back within tower range. Proactive responses to data irregularities prevent spills, reduce labor and travel costs, and improve pipeline performance.

New pipelines generally have built-in monitoring systems as a matter of course, and pipeline managers are retrofitting existing lines wherever possible. Given the self-evident benefits of remote pipeline monitoring, it’s only a matter of time before the world’s entire pipeline network has a connected skin.

Building and Structural Safety

The United States’ building stock, particularly in dense urban areas in which the average building age is greater than the average human lifespan, isn’t much better off than its roads and bridges. The picture is much the same in Europe, and even worse in developing countries without first-world building codes. Inspectors simply can’t keep up with the workload, and this can lead to tragic results. In 2015, a New York Times photo essay captured raw, sometimes horrifying images of the deadliest gas explosions in recent New York City history.

Building managers aren’t as far down the IoT path as pipeline managers, but momentum is building. Gas, water, and sewer line monitors can proactively alert utilities and city authorities about potential problems, forestalling tragedy and property damage, while monitors attached to joists and other structural elements can watch for signs of weakness and empower proactive repair.

Retail and Logistics

Smart Shelving and Mobile In-Store Beacons

IoT technology is set to make shopping a whole lot easier – and a lot more fun. “Smart shelves” use mobile beacons – transmitters that sync with smartphone apps or deliver push notifications – to alert shoppers where to find items in-store. More sophisticated beacons alert shoppers as they walk past items on their shopping list, or cross-sell by serving ads for merchandise related to list items – for instance, spinach dip for crackers. Kroger is currently testing this technology in Cincinnati-area supermarkets, and other retailers are likely to follow soon.

For retailers, smart shelves promise to sharpen and streamline fulfillment and warehousing operations. For instance, when a smart shelf goes empty, it immediately notifies a software backend that orders, or alerts human supervisors to order, new supplies from the back of the store, warehouse, or a third-party vendor. That means fewer empty shelves, more choice for customers, and less wasted product – a critical consideration in perishable departments.

Fleet and Shipment Tracking

Major logistics companies such as FedEx and UPS have used connected sensors and devices to monitor fleet and shipment movements in real time. This is great for customers and companies alike. Customers use the technology to track their packages as they progress through the various links in the logistics chain, while companies leverage it to optimize routes and hold personnel accountable. Over time, tracking systems are likely to become more granular, enabling minute-to-minute tracking – a huge value-add for companies currently rolling out super-fast delivery systems, such as Amazon.

Fleet tracking systems also help with business imperatives, such as regulatory compliance and cost control. For instance, many long-haul trucking companies use GPS-connected sensors to validate driver logs and ensure that employees aren’t taking longer shifts than allowed by law, or to verify that drivers are taking the most efficient routes possible to minimize fuel consumption.

Crop and Field Monitoring

It’s not hard to imagine how Gross’s “skin” applies to the agricultural industry. Particularly in the developed world, farming is much higher-tech than many laypeople realize – for instance, harvesters use GPS to more or less automate their paths through the fields, and the amount of gadgetry in their cabs puts even late-model, high-end passenger cars to shame.

However, agriculture’s real technological frontier is crop and field monitoring – using connected sensors to collect and disseminate real-time information about soil conditions, plant health, and other factors. In the past, crop monitoring required human pilots in small planes, a huge expense that most farmers, particularly those growing low-margin crops, couldn’t afford.

Today, drone-based systems dramatically reduce monitoring costs while allowing for more consistent, frequent data collection, and thus a clearer picture of field conditions. State-of-the-art drone systems interface directly with software systems controlled by equipment and nutrient vendors, creating an incredibly valuable source of leads and reducing friction during the sales process – as it’s easier to make the sale when there’s data to back up your pitch. In the future, countless small sensors scattered throughout fields are likely to take real-time readings on surrounding plants and soils, providing a continuous stream of information to farmers and their vendors, and obviating the need for flying data-collectors outside of super-remote, unconnected areas.

Final Thoughts

The vast potential of the Internet of Things is just now beginning to dawn on the general public. As computing power increases and Internet connections become more robust, IoT innovation is sure to accelerate, producing strange and wonderful new applications that we can scarcely conceive today. Just as we marvel at life before such taken-for-granted conveniences as indoor plumbing and the telephone, our not-too-distant descendants may well look back at the era before the world sprouted its connected skin and wonder: “Just how could they possibly live back then?

Which IoT innovations are you most excited about? Tweet your opinions to @BarcodingBlog

This post was written by Tyler Robbins, a tech contributor who constantly searches for new trends in various industries.