How to realize the full potential of the Internet of Things?

For about 12,000 years, farmers have lived more or less at the mercy of the elements. Not knowing which specific seed will take root in a given soil, agriculturalists today still spread blends of seeds over vast tracts of land with fingers crossed the weather will provide optimal growing conditions. The Internet of Things (IoT) stands to wipe away all that inefficiency and imprecision.

iMinds focuses on resolving four specific IoT challenges: ensuring reliable wireless performance in challenging environments, facilitating effortless (‘plug-and-play’) IoT deployments, creating a secure IoT and infusing the IoT with intelligence.

And that’s just one application area; IoT applications are being considered (and deployed) in a wide range of sectors – from transportation and logistics to manufacturing, but also health and care.

Putting the IoT to work, a farmer might deploy miniaturized, networked devices to gather real-time data on soil quality and moisture levels, and to track, analyze and exchange information on weather patterns and effects. With such tools, he or she could know exactly which seed type to plant on which acre of land, how much fertilizer to apply, and how to contend with all types of weather – saving time and money while boosting crop yields.

Track4C: Setting sail for the Internet of Things

Shippers moved more than eight billion tons of cargo around the world in 2013. With fuel costs rising, competition intensifying and logistics increasingly ‘just in time’, the precise monitoring and tracking of containers is only going to become more important. Belgium’s Track4C is proving out its conviction that the Internet of Things will open up a whole new world of capabilities for container tracking. Working together with iMinds researchers to tackle some of the underlying technical challenges, Track4C finished a solution prototype in 2012 and currently has 50 units in the field being evaluated by customers. Feedback has been very positive. Customers are satisfied, particularly with the increased security: they don’t have to hedge against loss as much as they used to, which increases their working capital.

Research challenges

However, for the true potential of the Internet of Things to materialize, a number of important technological challenges still need to be addressed. iMinds is specifically focusing on four of those –

Ensuring reliable wireless performance (in terms of reliability, throughput, limited latency, etc.).

This is particularly important for a successful introduction of mission-critical IoT applications in harsh, industrial environments – where wireless signals are often obstructed.

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Facilitating effortless (‘plug-and-play’) deployment of IoT architectures.

Objects in the Internet of Things cannot require complex configuration. They have to deploy and (re)configure in a plug-and-play fashion – especially if, going forward, those objects will outnumber people 6 to 1.

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Creating secure IoT architectures.

Beyond the integrity of the signal, the information transmitted by the IoT network must also be kept secure – for the sake of operational safety as well as personal privacy.

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Infusing the IoT with intelligence.

People often use the term ‘smart devices’ when talking about the kinds of objects that will make up the Internet of Things. ‘Smart’ implies that the devices themselves either possess some intelligence of their own or at least deliver information as part of a higher-order system that translates data into actions. But where should that intelligence reside?

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An Internet of Things is still an Internet for people

To realize the vision of the IoT, researchers must solve the before-mentioned technical challenges. However, non-technical challenges must be addressed as well: while the IoT is a network of objects, its applications are for people.

This matters because human expectations of usability and reliability, and concerns about privacy and accountability, will be some of the crucial challenges to overcome in making the Internet of Things real and successful.

Leveraging the multidisciplinary nature of its research groups, iMinds brings together the technical and non-technical skills that are needed to advance the creation of the Internet of Things - in all its dimensions.