Tech lingo is trendy – remember “intra-net” and “cyber-space”? – these days it is hard to read any business or technology news without coming across the phrase the “Internet of Things.”
Usually it is mentioned in the context of the next great technology transformation or a scary cautionary tale about privacy. When IBM places a $3 billion bet on a new IoT business unit, something interesting must be up.
So what is the Internet of Things and (selfishly I wonder) can it help us build better energy production and transmission stuff?
Forbes contributor Jacob Morgan writes one of the better descriptions I have read:
“Simply put this is the concept of [the IoT] basically connecting any device with an on and off switch to the Internet (and/or to each other). This includes everything from cell phones, coffee makers, washing machines, headphones, lamps, wearable devices and almost anything else you can think of. This also applies to components of machines, for example a jet engine of an airplane or the drill of an oil rig. As I mentioned, if it has an on and off switch then chances are it can be a part of the IoT.
Consider the vast mountains of data which go into any large scale industrial project, like a power plant or a new transmission line. It takes years of data gathering and organization to prove project viability and get a set of permits. At that point the serious engineering begins with another massive layer of data upon data of engineering detail. From there it is broken out into bids and contracts each with their own liabilities and interface issues. It is then constructed, generating a set of as-built data which hopefully resembles the original engineering plans and is within the tolerances of the permits. Finally, it goes into a couple of decades of operations requiring maintenance and repair all of which is dependant on this mountain of data going back to the original project viability assumptions. Not an insignificant data set.
Further, consider the thousands of pieces and parts which go into any electricity infrastructure project. What would the increased availability look like if all to that data could talk to the asset in the field, for instance an overhead cable could tell you “hey this oak branch is leaning on me” or a transformer part mentions “the temperature around me doesn’t feel quite right, if this continues I will likely fall over in 6 months.”
It will be a while before entire electrical grids are really intelligent – that is the opportunity. This is much more than just an academic exercise, there are a number of really innovative efforts which seem to be heading towards large scale commercialization: For example:
Microgrids, Streetlights, or Building Management.
Leading research firm Gartner says that by 2020 there will be 26 billion objects connected to the Internet of Things. That type of growth is sure to transform much of our technology infrastructure (yet again) – given our dependence on energy for everything, the more the IoT converges with the traditional energy way of thinking – the better it will be for us all.