What is the Internet of Things?

The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the hottest topics in technology innovation right now.

At its most basic, it’s the idea of devices that have technologies embedded in them to connect to the web wirelessly – so using cloud computing. The obvious example is your smart phone, which is part of the IoT. But the potential for IoT technology goes way beyond your phone and laptop.

An increasing number of real-world objects are becoming accessible and manageable through the internet. Wireless technology can be embedded in everything from household appliances to wearable technology to implantable biometric sensors to entire transportation systems in cities. So, sure, the IoT means you can watch YouTube while you’re on the train. But it could also serve to keep the trains running on time – an ‘Internet of Trains’ if you will.

And the IoT is tipped to get a lot bigger. The massive amount of ‘smart’ objects that will cooperate with each other will continuously produce new data. The possibilities for transforming life and business through the IoT is immense.

Making sense of the IoT

Charles Sturt University (CSU) is at the forefront of applying the IoT to real-world situations. And our innovation is being recognised on a global scale.

A team of students and academics from CSU (financially supported by the NSW Department of Industry) took part in the 2017 international IoT Spartans Challenge. IoT Spartans is an educational program that offers students an opportunity to brainstorm and propose an innovative idea for using the new IoT technology. The CSU team placed second out of 250 university teams. Individual CSU students took three places in the top 10, out of more than 600 participants.

Organised by one of the top 10 IoT companies in the world, Libelium, the competition focuses on utilising hardware to showcase innovative ideas. It’s also a great chance to explore the latest techniques, get a taste of hands-on practical applications and promote public recognition to the best future IoT developers.

The Spartans competition challenges students to devise new ways to use IoT technologies to solve real-world problems. CSU decided to focus on applying IoT technology to specifically rural challenges. After all, CSU is Australia’s largest regional university.

The team designed a tool for farmers to view, retrieve and download data captured by new IoT sensors placed in farm paddocks and greenhouses. Sensors collect real-time data on relevant aspects of climate – such as wind speed and direction, temperature and humidity. The collected data is then sent to a cloud server and can be analysed so that farmers can respond dynamically to how things are ‘on the ground’ through continuous monitoring.

The IoT in the field

Dr Lihong Zheng, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science in CSU’s School of Computing and Mathematics and part of the CSU team for the competition, explained the rural focus.

“With the onset of digital agriculture, IoT can improve productivity in Australian farming. We teach students how to apply cutting-edge techniques to provide a cloud-based architecture for environmental monitoring on farms.

“At CSU we see the potential of the technology, and try to combine it with parts of the agriculture sector.”

Dr Zheng believes it is important for CSU to be at the forefront of technology that bridges the digital divide between metropolitan communities and regional, rural and remote ones.

“There is much more scope to use IoT technology in Australian rural communities. It is being done a lot in Europe at the moment, with technologies to monitor crops, vineyards and irrigation, and these things can help Australian communities.”

Discovering the future

Beyond these applications, Dr Zheng feels that the technology that powers the IoT will become increasingly embedded in our society. It is already evident in something as everyday as parking your car.

“There are IoT systems that transmit data about car parking spaces to users driving smart cars. A gateway at a car park will collect data from smart cars that is then transmitted over the internet and can be downloaded in real-time by an app in someone’s car.”

Dr Zheng believes the impact will continue to grow exponentially.

“Even five years ago the idea of something like Google Home [a voice-activated wireless hub that allows users to control the smart devices in their home simply by speaking] wasn’t being imagined as a possibility, so in the future the internet could well link everyone – and everything – together.”

Students studying the Internet of Things at CSU get to explore these notions, as Dr Zheng explained.

“Students design a smart office, home, building, and can experience the latest industry-level software. We have simulation software that students use to conceptualise their designs, and we use cloud computing technology actually in the delivery of the subject.”

If you’re keen to learn more about the Internet of Things, you can study it as a single subject or explore it as part of a wider computing course.