IoT devices proliferate, from smart bulbs to industrial vibration sensors

The Internet of Things has spawned a broad range of sensors and monitors that make for smart home conveniences and also make businesses run more safely and cost-effectively.

Jon Gold Jan 09th 2019

While the IoT is already a well-known phenomenon in the tech world, the specifics of IoT implementations are sometimes less than obvious. Here’s a quick-and-dirty overview of the wildly diverse and still evolving landscape of the IoT devices themselves, divided for your reading pleasure into the consumer and enterprise realms.

Consumer IoT devices

The consumer side of the IoT is mostly about inserting Internet connectivity into objects that a person born before 1990 wouldn’t really have thought needed it – from the toaster and refrigerator in your kitchen, to the locks on your doors, to your car and your wristwatch.

It’s much the same story with smart appliances. A simple smart toaster can notify your smartphone that the toast is ready, while some of the fancier connected refrigerators can be made to act as a hub for your whole kitchen. Bar code readers and cameras mean that the fridge can tell you what’s inside, help you plan meals, and even warn you about expiration dates. Front-mounted touchscreens can show the family’s schedule at a glance and let you control other touchscreens in the house.

It’s worth noting that consumer IoT devices can pose a serious security risk. Depending on how everything’s configured, it’s possible that anyone able to access your home’s Wi-Fi network can then access your smart devices, which is something of a big deal if you have certain kinds of smart locks or camera-equipped devices connected.

Enterprise/Industrial IoT devices

If anything, the diversity of IoT devices is ratcheted up even further, when it comes to business and industry uses. The major draw here is automation, which can save companies money in labor costs, maintenance and a host of other areas.

Arguably the biggest and most-established use in this area is preventive maintenance, usually in an industrial setting. The concept is simple, but it relies on a lot of clever computational work and careful integration. Preventive maintenance uses gadgets like vibration and wear sensors to measure the stresses on and performance of factory equipment. For example, in a turbine those sensors feed their data into software running on either an edge device sitting somewhere on the factory floor for quick communication with the endpoint or on a server somewhere in the data center or cloud. Once there, the data can be parsed by a machine-learning system that correlates real-time data with historical, enabling the detection of potential reliability issues without the need for human inspection.

Fleet management’s another popular use case for IoT devices. These systems either take advantage of a GPS locator already installed on a car or add a new one for the purpose, sending that data via cellular network back to the company, allowing rental car firms or really any company with a large number of cars or trucks to keep track of their movements. Properly equipped vehicles can even transmit data from the sensors already present in most modern cars – things that track engine speed, fuel temperature, battery voltage, manifold pressure, and so on – to provide a degree of early warning on potential maintenance problems.

Enterprises that aren’t working with heavy machinery or fleets of vehicles are still using IoT devices, mostly for building management purposes. This is usually a question of connecting existing sensors, including electric eyes, cameras and other security gear to a single network, reporting back to a central console for automated security reporting, or connecting temperature and humidity sensors from the HVAC system to controllers for greener building environments.

But businesses that have a lot of hardware spread across wide areas are still the most active IoT-device users. Agriculture, for example, is another sector that’s embraced the use of IoT with gusto – there’s a huge array of different IoT devices working in farmers’ fields these days. John Deere, for example, offers a precision navigation and tracking system, using extremely accurate, proprietary locational tech to let farmers do things like precise planting for maximized yields. Driving a combine harvester and making sure all the contents of the field make it into the grain bin used to involve driving with your head craned all the way around to ensure that the bin was still in formation – now, Deere’s tech means that the bin stays in formation automatically. Moreover, sensors in the soil can measure pH, moisture, and nutrient levels, transmitting via cellular service to a farmer’s laptop or tablet, which allows for a much more in-depth understanding of soil conditions.

Healthcare technology, too, is starting to use a lot of machine-to-machine communication, placing it squarely in the realm of IoT. Work is afoot to connect various types of diagnostic and monitoring devices – heart rate monitors, fingertip oxygen monitors and so on – both with each other and with smarter back ends, to provide improved diagnostic accuracy and cut down on alarm fatigue. For example, a pulse oximeter that slips off a patient’s finger will give a zero result and generally trigger an alarm, but an interconnected system can note that no other indicators have changed and deduce that the oximeter has simply become disconnected.